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John Hultquist, vice president of intelligence analysis at Google-owned cybersecurity firm Mandiant, likens his job to studying criminal minds through a soda straw. He monitors cyberthreat groups in real time on the dark web, watching what amounts to a free market of criminal innovation ebb and flow.
Groups buy and sell services, and one hot idea — a business model for a crime — can take off quickly when people realize that it works to do damage or to get people to pay. Last year, it was ransomware, as criminal hacking groups figured out how to shut down servers through what’s called directed denial of service attacks. But 2022, say experts, may have marked an inflection point due to the rapid proliferation of IoT (Internet of Things) devices.
Attacks are evolving from those that shut down computers or stole data, to include those that could more directly wreak havoc on everyday life. IoT devices can be the entry points for attacks on parts of countries’ critical infrastructure, like electrical grids or pipelines, or they can be the specific targets of criminals, as in the case of cars or medical devices that contain software.
“What I wish is that the vulnerabilities of cybersecurity could never negatively affect human life and infrastructure,” says Meredith Schnur, cyber brokerage leader for US & Canada at Marsh & McLennan, which insures large companies against cyberattacks. “Everything else is just business.”
For the past decade, manufacturers, software companies and consumers have been rushing to the promise of Internet of Things devices. Now there are an estimated 17 billion in the world, from printers to garage door openers, each one packed with software (some of it open-source software) that can be easily hacked. In a conversation Dec. 26 with The Financial Times, Mario Greco, the group CEO of giant insurer Zurich Insurance Group, said cyberattacks could pose a larger threat to insurers than pandemics and climate change, if hackers aim to disrupt lives, rather than merely spying or stealing data.
IoT devices are a key entry point for many attacks, according to Microsoft’s Digital Defense Report 2022. “While the security of IT hardware and software has strengthened in recent years, the security of Internet of Things (IoT) … has not kept pace,” according to the report.
A rash of attacks that reached the physical world through the cyber world in the past year show the rising stakes. Last February, Toyota stopped operations at one of its plants because of a cyberattack. In April, Ukraine’s power grid was targeted. In May, the Port of London was hit with a cyberattack. That followed up on a 2021 that included to major attacks on critical infrastructure in the U.S., taking down energy and food supply operations of Colonial Pipeline and the JBS meatpacking conglomerate.
What many experts are anticipating is the day enterprising criminals or hackers affiliated with a nation-state figure out an easy-to-replicate scheme using IoT devices at scale. A group of criminals, perhaps connected to a foreign government, could figure out how to take control of many things at once – like cars, or medical devices. “We have already seen large-scale attacks using IoT, in the form of IoT botnets. In that case, actors leveraging unpatched vulnerabilities in IoT devices used control of those devices to carry out denial of service attacks against many targets. Those vulnerabilities are found regularly in ubiquitous products that are rarely updated.”
In other words, the possibility already exists. It’s only a question of when a criminal or a nation decides to act in a way that targets the physical world at a large scale. “It’s not always the art of the possible. It’s a market-driven thing,” Hultquist said. “Somebody figures out a scheme that is successful at making money.”
Aside from responding rapidly to attacks, the only answer to the “cat-and-mouse game” is constant innovation, says Shlomo Kramer, an early investor in Palo Alto Networks and currently one of the top cyber security investors worldwide.
There are a handful of companies, new regulatory approaches, a growing focus on cars as a particularly important area, and a new movement within the software engineering world to do a better job of incorporating cybersecurity from the beginning.
Internet of Things has a big update problem
The cybersecurity industry is upping its game. Companies including ForeScout and Phosphorus focus on Internet of Things security, which has a heavy emphasis on constant inventory of “endpoints” – where new devices connect to a network.
But one of the key problems in Internet of Things security is that there isn’t a good process for updating devices with patches, as new vulnerabilities, hacks or attacks are discovered, says Greg Clark, former CEO of Symantec, currently the chairman of Forescout. Many users are accustomed to downloading updates and patches to computers and phones; and even in those cases, a significant number of users don’t bother to do the updates.
The problem is much worse in the IoT: For instance, who bothers to update their garage-door opener? “Not many of the IoT devices have a system to update the code,” says Clark. “It becomes a serious problem to remediate the vulnerabilities in the IoT.”
He said one focus for cybersecurity companies has become putting controls around the devices so they can only do a specific set of things. That way, the devices can’t be weaponized to launch attacks on other networks. “There are a lot of hammers swinging,” Clark said, on products that make the IoT more secure).
Medical devices, which are seen as particularly important and particularly vulnerable, are one focus. Last month, Palo Alto Networks announced a new product aimed at medical device makers.
IoT device makers are not regulated enough
Because the challenges are new, and cut across industries, the U.S. guidelines and regulations remain patchwork. That has left a lot of IoT cybersecurity up to consumers and companies across sectors, rather than the many manufacturers making IoT devices.
“I’m hopeful there will be some new standards, and newer regulations that will force the vendors to do more,” says Randy Trzeciak, director of the science information and security policy & management program at Carnegie Mellon University. “There should be a national discussion around insuring device security, and where the manufacturer needs to take some ownership and responsibility.”
Clark said CISA and the National Institutes of Standards and Technology are working together, issuing guidelines for the thousands of manufacturers that make IoT devices covering such things as ensuring that IoT devices identify themselves to networks as they are added to them. In 2020, the U.S. Congress turned the guidelines into a law, but only for companies that supply the U.S. government with IoT devices. A spokesman for the National Institutes of Standards and Technology says this is the only national law the agency knows of. Some state-specific and industry-specific laws also exist: For instance, data in medical devices would be covered by HIPAA, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has some jurisdiction over cars.
Some investors and executives cautiously welcome the increasing involvement of regulators. “It’s simply too complex,” Kramer said. “There’s not enough qualified and experienced security people.”
How cars are being targeted
As more criminal hackers aim attacks at the physical sphere, cars are a target. That includes theft, with attackers exploiting the keyless entry systems, but also attacks on sensitive information now being stored in cars, such as maps and credit card data.
Led by the European Union, countries around the world are rapidly adopting cybersecurity regulations for cars, with the EU’s coming into effect in July of last year.
The transition to electric vehicles has created an opportunity for regulators to get ahead of the criminals. As the new technology lowered the barriers to entry, more car companies entered the market. In turn, that has created an opportunity for regulators to work with industry groups that want to protect their home-grown industries.
The concerns about cars are nothing new. In one landmark experiment in 2015, two hackers attacked a Jeep Cherokee. “They shut down the engine on the highway – the brakes didn’t respond. This is not a pleasant situation,” said David Barzilai, CEO of a six-year-old Israeli company called Karamba Security, which helps car companies make their IoT devices more secure.
Barzilai says that in the past 12 months, there were dozens of attacks, both by serious criminal gangs and teen-agers. “When we started six years ago, the attacks were by states, mostly China,” he says. “Within the last 12 months, there’s a democratization” in car attacks, he said, pointing to the case in January 2022 of the teen who figured out how to access the control systems of a few dozen Teslas at once, last January — have already done.
Connected cars usually have SIM cards, that hackers can attack via cellular networks, he said. “All cars of the same vehicle model use the same software,” he said. “Once hackers identify a vulnerability, and a way to exploit it remotely, they can replicate the attack on other vehicles.”
Cybersecurity grew as an industry mostly as an after-the-fact attempt to fix software and hardware that was long since on the market, as criminals and foreign governments discovered vulnerabilities in the systems that they could exploit. One study by IBM’s System Science’s Institute found it costs six times more to fix a cybersecurity vulnerability while software is being implemented than when it is under development. The IoT is still relatively new as an industry, giving security-minded developers a chance to get ahead of the cat-and-mouse game, says Trzeciak, and there’s a growing movement of researchers and developers working on this, including Carnegie Mellon’s Software Engineering Institute’s DevSecOps initiative, which aims to add security into earlier phases of software development. That process-based innovation could make all kinds of software, including that in cars and medical devices, more secure — and therefore, the devices safer.