Where’s Wally? Tracking the president with GPS

Is the security of wearable technology really a big deal? Is the security of IoT devices really such a big deal? I mean, my fridge, my light bulb, my other cliché, what use are they to an attacker? Who really cares where I am, how fast my heart is beating or what my typical pace is over any given distance?

Maybe this photo of the President of the United States sporting his shiny new fitbit Surge gives you all the answer you need. The POTUS, wearing a fitbit, with GPS, being tracked 24/7, by a third party… See where I’m going?

The Internet of Things (IoT) and even more broadly, the Internet of Everything (IoE) are still nascent areas of technology where individual physical devices with embedded electronics, software and sensors are internet connected in order to provide greater value by exchanging data without the need for direct human intervention. This rapidly expanding arc of the information technology rainbow has attracted much attention recently from security researchers; with presentations at the high profile security events, breaking the security of home security systems, cars and many others.

Whilst this research is important in practical terms, hopefully driving some manufacturers to resolve the issues identified, it is also somewhat misdirected.

IoT devices themselves are almost invariably sold as a “black box” solution,; little to no user interface and no options for aftermarket security or tweaking. They are most often low memory, low storage, low processor-power devices designed primarily to harvest data and forward it on for the actual processing. And there’s the rub. The data is sent off-device, to the cloud, where it can be processed, mined, correlated and cross-referenced. Where it can be BIG data.

It is a simple matter for a security researcher to acquire a piece of interesting technology and begin to dissect it for vulnerabilities. Of course it takes skill to do so, but there are no significant barriers aside from that. You buy the kit and you break it.

It is a far more complex minefield to navigate if you set out to test the security of the back-end to those devices. In fact, more often than not it is illegal. To probe the security of someone else’s data centre without their permission, to break in and see what treasure is there for the taking, that ventures outside the realms of research and into the criminal, so the good guys don’t do it.

The bad guys, of course, don’t have to play by those rules, targeted attacks are their stock in trade, and data centres are fast becoming targets of choice. If the President of the USA is wearing technology x, then technology x’s back-end suddenly presents a juicy looking target for criminal or state-sponsored attack and they won’t be discerning about who else’s data they make available either.

Data in general is gold dust to attackers, the more of it one can accumulate, the more tailored, credible and successful one’s attacks can become. All too often devices destined to be connected and used online are designed and produced either by traditional organisations who have typically not had to pay attention to digital security during the manufacture and design process or by entrepreneurs who are too interested in getting their first product to market to be slowed down by some nagging security concern.

It is becoming a significant challenge to regulatory bodies and to governments to ensure that safety standards, which have previously focused on the physical risks of a product and its components, accurately and clearly identify digital risks and outline the minimum safety criteria.  Perhaps in the near future we can hope for a kind of digital kite-mark, offering at least some assurance that physical goods and their supporting infrastructure have been designed and built to a defined standard of digital security, that security was baked -in, not glossed over and that none of the small parts may cause choking. The need for this becomes ever more urgent as pretty much every £100+ good becomes connected in some way, in fact Gartner estimated in 2013 that by the year 2020 (have you watched our award-winning web series yet?) there will be more than 30 billion “connected devices”.

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