business people with long shadows (robertindiana/Shutterstock.com)

The shadow IoT lurking on enterprise networks

With the number of internet-connected devices expected to jump from about 8 billion this year to 21.5 billion by 2025, government IT shops are uncovering new cybersecurity challenges – namely preventing shadow devices from accessing their networks.

The name of this new problem is shadow IoT. The internet of things covers anything that connects to the internet, including sensor-enabled vending machines, cars and HVAC systems in addition to traditionally networked devices such as laptop computers and smartphones. Shadow IoT refers to connected devices that aren’t managed or monitored by an organization’s IT resources. In 2018, 90 percent of organizations surveyed by 802 Secure found previously undetected IoT or industrial IoT wireless networks separate from their enterprise infrastructure.

“They are primarily consumer devices which are brought into the work environment by employees, vendors or contractors and are connected to the network,” Michal Salat, head of threat intelligence at security firm Avast, told GCN. “The trend is marked by a shift from organizationally driven IT services to consumer- or user-driven IT services.”

A May 2018 report by Infoblox found that the most common devices found on enterprise networks included fitness trackers at 49 percent, digital assistants such as Amazon Alexa and Google Home at 47 percent and smart televisions at 46 percent. Among networks running Avast software, the most common shadow IoT devices are media gadgets such as Google Chromecast and Apple TV at 45 percent, work appliances such as printers at 28 percent and game consoles at 12 percent.

Salat likens the situation to shadow IT of the early 2000s, when users began to go around internal IT teams by adopting software-as-a-service offerings and "bringing devices into the workplace and using the available network to connect them to the internet," he said.

The class of shadow IoT devices "is very different from the laptops, tablets, and mobile phones that were part of the BYOD trend," so security requires a different technical approach, Salat said. That’s because most IoT devices are not built with security in mind, often lacking authorization and authentication tools, for instance.

“And there is also another overlooked aspect of these devices -- which is that many of them have common internal components,” Salat said. “For example, several popular devices may use the same commonly available Wi-Fi chipset. Therefore, a vulnerability in that component can make many different devices vulnerable.”

Products are emerging to address IoT security, but they are primarily network solutions, he added, and that may not be enough.

“Most organizations focus on hardening their network perimeter and monitoring their endpoints, but they forget about devices out of their control,” Salat said. “All devices connected to an internal network should be inventoried and unknown devices denied a connection. On the other hand, many shadow IoT devices do not need to be able to talk to internal company services, and it is highly advisable to separate internet only or guest network from the internal one.”

Another challenge to managing shadow IoT is the sheer number of devices that are connecting and the lack well-defined operating system and developer platforms. That makes putting an agent or software on the device unreliable. Instead, IT managers must look at the traffic going to and from the device, Salat said.

“Also, IoT device disposal might be risky,” he added. “For example, broken light bulbs might not provide light anymore, but the electronics still work and hold credentials to the Wi-Fi network it was connected to.”

The best way to begin combatting shadow IoT is to understand internal traffic and segment the network, Salat said. Put policies in place to section off consumer IoT from mission-critical applications, conduct active device discovery and monitor outgoing traffic for anomalous behavior.

“This will undoubtedly be just the beginning of consumer IoT in the work environment. As we have seen, it only takes one compromised device to open a hole in a network,” he said.

About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.

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