8 ways you can help secure the Internet of Things

Government IT managers can help protect their agencies, its devices and the critical infrastructure by ensuring security is baked into connected systems.

The Internet of Things, or IoT, is often misconstrued to only mean the interconnectedness of appliances, computers, microprocessors and machines, all of which have IP addresses or some form of digital identification.  

While IoT includes these capabilities, it’s far more pervasive.  More precisely, the IoT is the interconnectedness of devices coupled with automated and centralized data collection and analysis capabilities from those devices or processors linked to them.  

Interconnected IoT devices, and their ability to collect and broadcast data (or have data extracted from them), can bring extreme convenience and a measure safety that was unheard of even 10 years ago.  On a factory floor or in a logistical operation, the IoT can offer dramatic cost avoidance and cost savings.  When linked to big data analysis, enterprise workflow optimization can be done in real time, offering a new level of operational improvement.

However, with the convenience and improved effectiveness of the IoT comes the potential for extreme vulnerability if IoT devices are not designed with security from the outset. This vulnerability can easily rise to the level of a national security risk. 

Supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems control elements of the critical infrastructure, including power systems, waterways, traffic signals and communication systems themselves.  The machines that comprise the critical infrastructure no longer stand alone, isolated from one another.  They are connected in ways where they can serve as portals to related infrastructure.  

That’s extremely convenient for load-balancing work, adjusting to just-in-time inventory demands or detecting where lean measures need to be applied.  But this network is vulnerable to attacks that could even shut off the power grid, paralyzing first responders in advance of a terrorist attack. Clearly, the same connectivity that allows convenience also creates points of vulnerability – the often cited double-edged sword of technology and automation.  

So, in the jargon of the industry, enough fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD).  What can you do to protect your agency, its devices and the critical infrastructure that will increasingly take advantage of the IoT?  Do the basics first:

1. Ensure that devices receiving updates over the web are doing so over secure systems.  Ensure that connectivity is secure and use devices that provide for two-factor authentication, e.g. a physical device and a PIN associated with those devices.

2. Secure the location of the data being reported by IoT-linked devices.  Ask the IoT service provider how the data collected is being protected, both virtually and physically.  Be sure to have a contract that outlines the provider’s responsibilities if there is a breach of its system.

3. Encrypt the system. Critical infrastructure systems must use encryption if they are going to ride the web.  But even this security protection is not enough to protect against attacks by insiders.  Two-person controls, where administrative control of passwords and operating systems is shared, will help prevent insider threats. 

4. Ensure supply chain security.  Counterfeit chips, or devices with embedded code, continue to plague the industry, and critical infrastructure and defense systems must have procedures to certify manufacturers’ supply chain processes to prevent the introduction of malicious code.

5. Support IoT security. As technology purchasers, we must vote with our dollars and support those manufacturers that invest in security up front for IoT.  We must support regulation that requires that IoT devices meet security standards, just as we require standards for our electrical devices with UL approval requirements.

6. Use out of band (OOB) systems – closed systems (intranets) that are not open to the public.  The Defense Department uses IoT linked devices, but they are mainly out of reach from hackers because they are OOB.  Defense weapons systems and even sensor-wearing soldiers report critical status information to centralized control centers that feed decision makers.  While less vulnerable to being hacked, these OOB systems are subject to insider attacks. 

7. Support standardization. The Open Web Application Security Project is an online community dedicated to web application security, and it is standardizing such items as secure web interfaces, authentication, secure network services, transport encryption, secure cloud and mobile interfaces, security configuration control, secure software/firmware and proper physical security, all of which must play into a comprehensive and integrated approach to securing the IoT. 

8. Stay informed. Other key sources for the most recent information on managing the security of such devices are the National Institute of Standards and Technology and federal guidance such as Federal Information Processing Standards (FIPS).  These organizations address critical steps that are needed to secure and protect information and critical systems.

The IoT trend is only going to grow.  We need to ensure that it grows with embedded security capabilities to protect our data and our critical systems.  

NEXT STORY: Knox devices get NSA approval

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