The Collective Risk of IoT

One of the favorite activities of certification experts is to define security levels based on risks. Such levels allow us to put the items to be certified in well-defined boxes. Then, we can certify them according to the rules on that box/level.

Until recently, life was easy, and we could define levels easily. Since 3 is a magic number for levels, here is a definition that I penned myself:

  • Low. Risks on individual goods and personal assets.
  • Medium. Risks on collective good and community assets.
  • High. Risk on human lives.

This classification can be (and has been) criticized, but it shows the idea. If something can only hurt your belongings, it is less sensitive than a thing that can impact, let’s say, your city’s traffic lights, and much less sensitive than a device that can kill you. And of course, you expect to spend less money on certification for anything with low risk.

If you work on IoT devices, then it is easy to apply this classification. My connected toothbrush is low, so is my personal security camera. The school’s security camera is medium, though, and a hospital’s connected syringes are high.

But wait. Didn’t Mirai exploit cameras to take down community assets like OVH servers? That’s the IoT issue: my camera as a personal security device to protect my house has a low risk level, but the same camera as a member of a botnet has at least a medium risk level, possibly a high if the next bad guy decides to attack emergency services instead of Web hosting services.

This is very hard to capture in a 3-level unidimensional classification. Yet, as we move towards certification of IoT devices, we need to include this collective risk. It is not enough today to consider what a device is supposed to do (watch my house), but we must consider what the device could do after being hacked, and even more importantly, what a large number of the same device could do after being hacked.

Here are three examples with different risks:

  • IT risk. Any permanently connected device can be targeted by a Mirai-like malware and end up attacking any part of our digital infrastructure.
  • Human risk. Anything with a battery may be led to overheat and possibly explode, and multiplying this could lead to havoc and multiple injuries.
  • Economic risk. Sending Brickerbot (which destroys what it infects) to a large number of simple but essential connected parts (for instance, car parts) could lead to a shortage of parts and major economic damage (for instance, if cars can’t be fixed).

These risks are hard to capture, but they are significant. However, it is just not possible to label every connected object as high risk, because certification constraints are too high.

One solution is to define a Low or Basic level that includes a significant level of protection against hacking and malicious exploitation. Even this apparently simple solution is hard to define, but thinking about the problem in such terms is already a big step ahead.

So, remember: A single connected device is cute, but collectively, they can be very dangerous.

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