March 26, 2017

Pragmatic advice for buying “Internet of Things” devices

We’re hearing an increasing amount about security flaws in “Internet of Things” devices, such as a “messaging” teddy bear with poor security or perhaps Samsung televisions being hackable to become snooping devices. How are you supposed to make purchasing decisions for all of these devices when you have no idea how they work or if they’re flawed?

Threat modeling and understanding the vendor’s stance. If a device comes from a large company with a reputation for caring about security (e.g., Apple, Google, and yes, even Microsoft), then that’s a positive factor. If the device comes from a fresh startup, or from a no-name Chinese manufacturer, that’s a negative factor. One particular thing that you might look for is evidence that the device in question automatically updates itself without requiring any intervention on your behalf. You might also consider the vendor’s commitment to security features as part of the device’s design. And, you should consider how badly things could go wrong if that device was compromised. Let’s go through some examples.

Your home’s border router. When we’re talking about your home’s firewall / NAT / router box, a compromise is quite significant, as it would allow an attacker to be a full-blown man-in-the-middle on all your traffic. Of course, with the increasing use of SSL-secured web sites, this is less devastating than you’d think. And when our ISPs might be given carte blanche to measure and sell any information about you, you already need to actively mistrust your Internet connection. Still, if you’ve got insecure devices on your home network, your border router matters a lot.

A few years ago, I bought a pricey Apple Airport Extreme, which Apple kept updated automatically. It has been easy to configure and manage and it faithfully served my home network. But then Apple supposedly decided to abandon the product. This was enough for me to start looking around for alternatives, wherein I settled on the new Google WiFi system, not only because it does a clever mesh network thing for whole-home coverage, but because Google explicitly claims security features (automatic updates, trusted boot, etc.) as part of its design. If you decide you don’t trust Google, then you should evaluate other vendors’ security claims carefully rather than just buying the cheapest device at the local electronics store.

Your front door / the outside of your house. Several vendors offer high-tech door locks that speak Bluetooth or otherwise can open themselves without requiring a mechanical key. Other vendors offer “video doorbells”. And a number of IoT vendors have replacements for traditional home security systems, using your Internet connection for connecting to a “monitoring” service (and, in some cases, using a cellular radio connection as a backup). For my own house, I decided that a Ring video doorbell was a valuable idea, based on its various advertised features, but also if it’s compromised, nobody can see into my house. In the worst case, an attacker can learn the times that I arrive and leave from my house, which aren’t exactly a nation-state secret. Conversely, I stuck with our traditional mechanical door locks. Sure, they’re surprisingly easy to pick, but I might at least end up with a nice video of the thief. I’m assuming that I have more to risk from “smash and grab” amateur thieves than from careful professionals. Ultimately, we do have insurance for these sorts of things. Speaking of which, Ring provides a free replacement if somebody steals your video doorbell. That’s as much a threat as anything.

Your home interior. Unlike the outside, I decided against any sort of always-on audio or video devices inside my house. No NestCam. No “smart” televisions. No Alexa or Google Home. After all the hubbub about baby monitors being actively cataloged and compromised, I wouldn’t be willing to have any such devices on my network because the risks outweigh the benefits. On the flip side, I’ve got no problem with my Nest thermostats. They’re incredibly convenient, and the vendor seems to have kept up with software patches and feature upgrades, continuing to support my first-generation devices. If compromised, an attacker might be able to overheat my house or perhaps damage my air conditioner by power-cycling it too rapidly. Possible? Yes. Likely? I doubt it. As with the video doorbell, there’s also a risk that an attacker could profile when I leave in the morning and get home in the evening.

Your mobile phones. The only in-home always-on audio surveillance is the “Ok Google” functionality in our various Android devices, which leads to a broader consideration of mobile phone security. All of our phones are Google Nexus or Pixel devices, so are running the latest release builds from Google. I’d feel similarly comfortable with the latest Apple devices. Suffice to say that mobile phone security is really an entirely separate topic from IoT security, but many of the same considerations apply: is the vendor supplying regular security patches, etc.

Your home theater. As mentioned above, I’m not interested in “smart” devices that can turn into surveillance devices. Our “smart TV” solution is a TiVo device: actively maintained by TiVo, and with no microphone or camera. If compromised, an attacker could learn what we’re watching, but again, there are no deep secrets that need to be protected. (Gratuitous plug: SyFy’s “The Expanse” is fantastic.) Our TV itself is not connected to anything other than the TiVo and a Chromecast device (which, again, has a remarkably limited attack surface; it’s basically just a web browser without the buttons around the edges).

I’m pondering a number of 4K televisions to replace our older TV, and they all come with “smarts” built-in. For most TV vendors, I’d just treat them as “dumb” displays, but I might make an exception for an Android TV device. I’ll note that Google abandoned support for its earlier Google TV systems, including a Sony-branded Google TV Bluray player that I bought back in the day, so I currently use it as a dumb Bluray player rather than as a smart device for running apps and such. My TiVo and Chromecast provide the “smart” features we need and both are actively supported. Suffice to say that when you buy a big television, you should expect it to last a decade or more, so it’s good to have the “smart” parts in smaller/cheaper devices that you can replace or upgrade on a more frequent basis.

Other gadgets. In our home, we’ve got a variety of other “smart” devices on the network, including a Rachio sprinkler controller, a Samsung printer, an Obihai VoIP gateway, and a controller for our solar panel array (powerline networking to gather energy production data from each panel!). The Obihai and the Samsung don’t do automatic updates and are probably security disaster areas. The Obihai apparently only encrypts control traffic with internet VoIP providers, while the data traffic is unencrypted. So do I need to worry about them? Certainly, if an attacker could somehow break in from one device and move laterally to another, the printer and the VoIP devices are the tastiest targets, as an attacker could see what I print (hint: nothing very exciting, unless you really love grocery shopping lists) or listen in on my phone calls (hint: if it’s important, I’d use Signal or I’d have an in-person conversation without electronics in earshot).

Some usability thoughts. After installing all these IoT devices, one of the common themes that I’ve observed is that they all have radically different setup procedures. A Nest thermostat, for example, has you spin the dial to enter your WiFi password, but other devices don’t have dials. What should they do? Nest Protect smoke detectors, for example, have a QR code printed on them which drives your phone to connect to a local WiFi access point inside the smoke detector. This is used to communicate the password for your real WiFi network, after which the local WiFi is never again used. For contrast, the Rachio sprinkler system uses a light sensor on the device that reads color patterns from your smartphone screen, which again send it the configuration information to connect to your real WiFi network. These setup processes, and others like them, are making a tradeoff across security, usability, and cost. I don’t have any magic thoughts on how best to support the “IoT pairing problem”, but it’s clearly one of the places where IoT security matters.

Security for “Internet of Things” devices is a topic of growing importance, at home and in the office. These devices offer all kinds of great features, whether it’s a sprinkler controller paying attention to the weather forecast or a smoke alarm that alerts you on your phone. Because they deliver useful features, they’re going to grow in popularity. Unfortunately, it’s not to possible for most consumers to make meaningful security judgments about these devices, and even web sites that specialize in gadget reviews don’t have security analysts on staff. Consequently, consumers are forced to make tradeoffs (e.g., no video cameras inside the house) or to use device brands as a proxy for measuring the quality and security of these devices.

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