‘We’re 9 meals from anarchy’: Take the cybersecurity threat to IoT seriously, says Beecham report

IoT security now critical

London, UK. September 10, 2014 – IoT security “must evolve significantly for the long term” if we are to avert critical impacts from terrorism and cyber warfare. This demands an in-depth defence plan applying lessons learned from ‘traditional’ hacking attacks. So says an interim report from Beecham Research, whose authors warned M2M Now that “we’re just 9 meals away from anarchy.” 

The potential damage to people, possessions, businesses and national critical infrastructure from a successful attack on cyber-physical systems through the rapidly emerging Internet of Things (IoT), cannot be underestimated, according to a new study announced today by Cambridge, UK-Beecham Research. As Jeremy Cowan reports, a cyber attack on the food logistics chain, water or sewage utilities, or interruption to energy supplies (particularly to the very young, sick or elderly) could cause chaos.

Announcing the study, an initial Beecham report entitled ‘Evolving Secure Requirements for the Internet of Things’ warns that there are currently insufficient security capabilities within the emerging IoT standards to manage the long lifecycles expected of many IoT devices. “While we may have some visibility of potential attacks over a few months, we need to protect IoT devices in the field for 10 years or longer,” said Professor Jon Howes, one of the authors of the report and technology director at Beecham Research. “Devices must be securely managed over their entire lifecycle, to be reset if needed and to enable remote remediation to rebuild and extend security capabilities over time.”

Prof Jon Howes: Protect IoT devices for 10 years
Prof Jon Howes: Protect IoT devices for 10 years

Beecham believes the answer to these challenges lies at the architectural level for both devices and systems and stretches from semiconductors through to network operators and system integrators. This approach underlines the need for common security objectives across the industry and interoperability within broad systems. This first report is a significant component of a longer study that reportedly includes substantial industry collaboration – including all major industry stakeholders – and which will be followed by publication of frameworks for various use cases.

The interim report highlights potential future attacks on IoT systems and how these may ultimately impact upon users. Possible impacts include home owners losing control of white goods such as fridges and boilers (furnaces), domestic and commercial door locks being disengaged, and security systems being hacked and monitored.

“The attack surface of an Internet of Things system may be substantially larger than traditional PCs, as the complexity of ensuring multiple vendors’ systems working together will lead to a greater probability of exploits being available,” said Professor Howes. “We have all become familiar with computer malware but the impact of equivalent IoT attacks could be to turn off a heating system in the middle of winter or take control of other critical IoT systems, which could be life-threatening.”

Security in the Internet of Things is significantly more complex than many system designers have previously experienced, says the report. Several industry sectors are highlighted in the report where data must remain trusted and private, whether within the system, in flight or at rest, and the reliance on robust cryptography schemes. These include aviation and other transportation systems, smart utilities such as sewage and water treatment, energy generation and supply, and global food chain management.

Significant evolution is required in the identification, authentication and authorisation of devices and people into IoT systems. Systems designers must also presume that all devices will become compromised at some point and ensure that it is possible to regain control. These devices will require quarantining inside the system while updates are being created and need to remain operational throughout the process.

The authors of the Beecham report welcome the work of industry organisations such as the AllSeen Alliance and the Open Interconnect Consortium looking at aspects of security within the IoT, but various government organisations including the UK’s Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure (CPNI) and the US Department for Homeland Security (DHS) have made it clear that IoT security must evolve more rapidly to meet the threats from hacktivism, terrorism and cyber warfare.

Co-author of the report, Haydn Povey is Beecham’s technical associate and former director of Secure Products at ARM Holdings. He said, “While many technologies such as advanced cryptography are being introduced in current IoT devices, governments around the world are concerned about the acceleration of IoT and agree that there is significantly more work needed to meet the demands of future threats as outlined in the ‘20 Critical Security Controls’, originally developed by the Council for Cybersecurity for mainstream IT security.” Povey added: “There is an urgent need to deliver cost effective solutions that enable robust security but also to retain the flexibility to deliver real benefits in the face of expected threats. This requires well-architected and interoperable frameworks across vendors and technologies, integrated at an IP and silicon level to enable the evolution of security services the whole industry can leverage.”

The Beecham study, Evolving Secure Requirements for the Internet of Things, is targeted at organisations across industry and government that are focused on the rapidly evolving IoT and machine-to-machine (M2M) markets.

“While the industry has learnt many lessons from the traditional IT domain, the initial steps in security for IoT are sufficient only for the near term, and pressure must be applied to drive greater system robustness, ensure that interoperability is applied across the industry, and deliver standards that can be measured and certified,” concluded Robin Duke-Woolley, founder of Beecham Research.

The full report will be published in Q4, 2014. For details of the interim report go to: www.beechamresearch.com


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