What Is IoT Security?
IoT security is a sub-discipline of cybersecurity or IT security focused on protecting IoT devices, sensors, and networks.
The term IoT, “Internet of Things” itself, as we know, is a very broad term. How should we define the “things” in the IoT concept?
Just so that we are on the same page, we can define all internet-connected devices and appliances as “things”: your Apple Watch, your smart thermostat, your security camera, your game consoles, and even your smartphones.
As you can see, IoT security, with that definition, is also a very broad field.
In practice, IoT security may refer to both the protection techniques/strategies and also the tools/infrastructure used to protect the IoT devices and the network itself. It’s worth noting that the more interconnected devices in an IoT network, the more vulnerable the network is potentially due to the larger attack surface.
With how broad IoT security is as a field, the implementation of IoT security on an IoT project may involve a wide variety of techniques, methodologies, and tools depending on the size and complexity of the IoT deployment.
Why IoT Security Is Important
While cybersecurity is arguably important in all kinds of businesses and systems with online connectivity, IoT provides a unique case.
Not only IoT is very broad with a lot of potential attack surfaces, but there are also other concerning security challenges unique to IoT. Here are the three main security challenges in IoT that demand a comprehensive IoT security strategy:
1. Large attack surface with complex interconnectivity
More than any other technology, IoT deployments have a much larger attack surface due to their nature in connecting many different software and hardware solutions together. As discussed, the more ways these devices and software can connect to each other, the more ways cybercriminals can also expose these connections.
This creates a unique conundrum in IoT security: on the one hand, we’d like the IoT network to be as versatile and accessible as possible: we’d want more devices, more sensors, and more connectivity options for our users. On the other hand, these options will grant more opportunities to attack the IoT network for cybercriminals.
To summarize, IoT security must pay attention to all potential attack surfaces and entry points. Even a very small vulnerability on a single device, for example, can expose the whole IoT network.
2. Lack of resources in devices
The second key challenge in IoT security is the fact that many IoT devices and sensors are lacking in terms of resources to enable comprehensive security. For instance, many compact IoT devices do not possess enough computing prowess and/or storage capabilities to incorporate strong enough antivirus and firewall solutions.
On the other hand, many of these IoT devices are designed to be as compact as possible, and in many cases, security is not the main priority.
In many cases, we have to rely on unorthodox means to secure the device, which can be more difficult or more expensive (or both) to implement.
3. Lack of security awareness in many industries
It’s no secret that there has been rapid adoption of IoT technologies in many industries. Healthcare, for example, is one of the fastest industries in terms of IoT adoption. In fact, many healthcare facilities are now heavily reliant on various IoT devices and applications in providing their services.
However, this dependence on IoT technology can potentially amplify the impact of a successful cybersecurity attack. In September 2020, for example, a cybersecurity breach in a hospital in Germany has directly resulted in the death of a patient due to the hospital’s reliance on IoT technology to provide service.
Not only that, but many businesses in various industries were not prepared to invest the adequate amount of investments required to establish an adequate security level for the IoT network.
Key Business Risks Prevented By IoT Security
By implementing a comprehensive IoT security strategy to protect the IoT network, the operator of the said IoT system can prevent the following risks:
- Data breach of confidential/sensitive/regulated data. Loss of sensitive data due to cyberattacks can cause financial and legal repercussions, as well as long-term and even permanent damage to your business’s reputation.
- Hackers taking control of IoT devices, which may lower the user experience and may affect the user’s safety in some cases
- Various security vulnerabilities in onboarding formerly unconnected devices to the network
- Malware attacks, which may convert the IoT devices into parts of botnets. Cybercriminals can then take control of the devices and use them, for example, in launching DDoS attacks
- Poisoned data, which may lead to wrong decisions in AI and machine learning applications. In turn, bad AI decisions can create wrong commands and actions
And more. By preventing these risks, we can ensure a fully secure IoT system, which in turn will help us achieve numerous benefits, as we’ll discuss below.
Benefits of Secure IoT
- Protect valuable data and intellectual property in the IoT network. IoT security will prevent hackers from tampering with AI, software, and logic systems in the IoT network.
- Enabling companies to market their product as a secure product, which can be a valuable competitive advantage not offered by competitors.
- Improve cost savings, efficiency, and productivity. Because we are sure the IoT network and devices can be fully trusted, we can use the IoT system to automate otherwise expensive operations and to make important decisions.
- By ensuring the IoT system is fully secure, we can present accurate and trusted usage data to potential partners and investors, opening doors to opportunities
- Enabling companies to chase more opportunities with new business models by ensuring the ability to generate reliable data and stable features.
- Establish trust, control, and integrity so companies can sell products to consumers while preventing fraud and securing payments.
What Needs To Be Secured in IoT?
Your IoT project relies on connectivity. However, the more devices connected to the network, and the more connectivity options for these devices to connect to each other, the more ways cybercriminals can intercept your connection.
IoT networks are complex by nature, and cybercriminals can intercept the network in a plethora of different ways.
To completely protect an IoT network, we have to consider protecting these different elements:
1. Device Access
Many IoT devices operate in uncontrolled and unsecured environments, and hackers can target these devices to upload malware, access certain features of the device that might be detrimental to the whole network, access unencrypted confidential data, and even turn this device into a part of a botnet.
2. Device Signature
Attackers can, for example, clone a device’s identity to infiltrate the network and access your data and even your whole system.
The device signature must be well-protected, unique, immutable, and completely unique. Without proper device identity management, we can’t implement IoT security on all the other aspects of the network.
Pretty self-explanatory, IoT networks continuously transmit data, including sensitive and regulated data.
A core aspect of IoT security is to maintain security, privacy, and integrity of data in storage (stored in the IoT device, in the network server, the cloud, etc. ), and also during transit. Data security must be implemented throughout the entire IoT lifecycle across all devices and equipment.
“Commands” here refer to the instructions provided to the IoT devices (whether via machine-to-machine automation or human input) to activate features, order the device to perform certain functions, turn it on/off, and so on.
It’s crucial to make sure only authenticated people and/or systems (including AI) can provide commands to the IoT devices.
5. Software Decisions
IoT applications with automation involve algorithm-based or AI-based software decisions.
When hackers intercept and manipulate these decisions, they can potentially affect the whole IoT network.
To prevent this, all software decisions should only be executed in a secure environment with adequate protection measures to prevent interception and tampering.
6. Physical Actions
Many IoT implementations involve physical actions as the end product (i.e. unlocking a smart lock, stop/start a device, increase/decrease the temperature of HVAC equipment, etc.). When intercepted by hackers, these actions may not only compromise the system but may also affect the user’s safety.
It’s crucial to ensure that the devices and equipment can only trigger these actions when they receive authenticated commands.
Key Requirements of IoT Security
As we can see, IoT security can be a very broad and complex process involving many different layers of protection.
So, how can we determine an IoT system as “secure”?
Here are the key requirements of a secure IoT system as the basis of any IoT security effort:
1. Security Compliance By Design
Before anything else, it’s crucial for all IoT devices, infrastructure (servers, routers, etc.), and software connected to the IoT network must be engineered with attention to potential cybersecurity threats.
If any hardware or software solution isn’t secure by design, we should not incorporate it into an IoT network, since even one vulnerability can potentially expose the whole system.
The first requirement deals with the human aspect of the IoT system.
Ideally, there should be a dedicated team responsible for managing IoT security alone, and at the very least there must be a designated executive responsible for securing the six different elements of IoT as discussed above. This person is responsible for securing all IoT devices and equipment that belong in the IoT system as well as the integrity and security of data (including and especially customer information).
3. Authentication and Authorization According to Purpose
The devices and software solutions must feature cryptography (authentication and authorization) functions according to industry standards and best practices.
Also, authentication and authorization should be managed properly to ensure access is only given to the right person and only when access is absolutely necessary for the person’s current task. When access is no longer necessary, authentication should be revoked as soon as possible to maximize IoT security.
4. Secure Applications and Network Framework
Another core aspect of IoT security is ensuring the right precautions and safety measures have been taken to secure all applications, web interfaces, server software, and other network elements. Measures should be taken to ensure data protection and privacy regulatory compliance.
If cloud network solutions are also used in the IoT system, then they also need to be properly secured.
5. Secure Device Production and Supply Chain
Even if the IoT device has been designed with security in mind, it’s crucial to make sure the actual product we’re going to incorporate into the IoT network is not compromised (security-wise) in the manufacturing process, delivery process, and/or installation.
A practical approach is to choose hardware and software solutions with good warranty policies. The products should be safe and secure out of the box for the end-users.
6. Easy and Safe Configuration
It’s crucial to ensure that the IoT product and equipment are easy to use and configure by the end-users. The configuration and control should help the user (and the manager of the IoT system) to maintain security.
The vendor of the product should provide regular software updates (especially security updates), a clear and easy-to-understand vulnerability disclosure policy, and life cycle management.
Why Security Compliance By Design Matters
Many companies and individuals deployed IoT devices in their networks that are not fundamentally secure by design.
While these devices can be made secure, for example by implementing authentication protocols and protecting them via additional security measures, the overall security would be limited.
In general, when an IoT device or software is not secure by design, you can only use traditional cybersecurity measures including network monitoring, managed security services, firewall, antivirus/anti-malware, and so on.
When a solution or product is already secure by design, the fundamental components of IoT security are already integrated from the start of the product development lifecycle. So, although the traditional cybersecurity methods above are certainly still beneficial, the device or software already has a stronger foundation not only in protecting the device from various cybersecurity threats but also in recovering from said attacks and data breaches.
IoT Security Principles and Best Practices
Now that we’ve understood the importance of IoT security and the different elements that must be secured, how can we actually implement IoT security?
Before we jump into various methods and techniques we can implement to improve IoT security, here are some of the most important best practices and principles to consider:
1. Audit your IoT devices
This one might seem obvious, but you’d be surprised how often this is neglected by many companies with IoT projects. It’s crucial to audit your IoT devices regularly and know exactly all the devices connected to the organization’s IoT network.
The thing is, the bigger your IoT network and the more devices you add, the more challenging this will be if you rely on manual audits. It’s best to establish a device/asset management and tracking solution as early as possible when starting your IoT project.
If your IoT project is already established, it’s not too late. Integrate a device management solution to your network as soon as possible.
2. List and understand your endpoints
Remember that each new endpoint introduced to the IoT network is a potential vulnerability, as they are a potential gateway for cybercriminals to access your IoT network.
Based on the device audit above, list the potential endpoints of the whole IoT network. Keep in mind that some devices might feature more than one endpoint, and different devices built by different manufacturers might behave differently.
You should identify and profile all endpoints and monitor them regularly.
3. Prioritize based on risk
While ideally, you should secure all endpoints in your IoT system at all times, with our limited resources sometimes this ideal situation can’t be achieved.
This is why prioritization is important. List all your assets and endpoints, and identify how critical they are to your IoT network. You should prioritize critical assets in your IoT network when implementing IoT security to ensure the reliability of operations.
4. Update everything ASAP
The general principle is to update everything as soon as updates are made available. This applies to both software and hardware solutions: applications, OSs, firmware, and so on. Especially when the update is a security patch, you should install it as soon as possible. Many successful data breaches are caused by seemingly simple cases of unpatched software, so don’t make the same mistake.
Schedule automatic updates whenever possible, and if not, make sure to check for updates regularly and apply these updates as soon as you can.
5. Pay attention to the physical aspect of IoT security
IoT networks also deal with the physical aspect of how the devices are deployed and connected to each other. And, there are security threats that are physical in nature like stolen devices, physical interception (i.e. hackers inserting a USB flash drive to your server), and so on.
It’s crucial to identify scenarios where securing the physical elements of your IoT network is necessary.
6. Use secure and unique passwords/credentials
While it might seem common sense, many professionals forgot to change the default passwords and credentials in IoT devices. When you only have one or two devices in the network, then this is a very easy thing to do. However, imagine having thousands of interconnected devices in the network.
Also, some devices from certain vendors might have default passwords that are difficult to change, so pay attention to the potential challenge.
Passwords should be complex and long enough to prevent brute force attacks, and ideally, they must be unique (one password per device). You can use a password manager tool and/or device management solution for this purpose.
7. Test everything regularly
Perform penetration testing regularly to check each device’s protection against incoming attacks, and evaluate all hardware and software solutions thoroughly before integrating them into the IoT network. Depending on the solution and/or the use case, you might also need to perform other tests to check for potential vulnerabilities.
Make sure to check all products and solutions thoroughly before adding them to your IoT network. Keep in mind that all these products can have potential vulnerabilities, and you need to identify them as soon as possible before your users can access them.
IoT Security Methods and Techniques
Below we will discuss some of the most prominent IoT security methods and techniques you can use to protect your IoT system and data:
1. Establishing Network Security
One of the most crucial steps in establishing IoT security is securing the network itself.
It’s important to remember that network security involves both software and hardware elements. Securing the software elements of the network include using antivirus/anti-malware, network firewalls, bot detection/management solution, blocking traffic based on signatures (i.e. IP addresses), and more.
On the other hand, securing hardware elements would include, but are not limited to disabling port forwarding, changing network equipment’s passwords and credentials, securing ports (not opening ports when not needed), and more.
It’s also crucial to ensure everything is up-to-date, including updating obsolete hardware that is no longer supported by its vendors.
2. Establishing Network Access Control (NAC) Solutions
An NAC software will allow IoT operators to accurately monitor the whole network’s visibility and enforce authorization policies to establish access management. Meaning, you can ensure only the right people have access to specific parts of the network.
The NAC solution would also prevent network access to devices that don’t belong to the IoT network and/or non-compliant devices. This is very important in preventing insecure devices and software/bots from infecting the whole IoT network.
3. Ensuring API security
Many IoT deployments rely on APIs and/or websites using APIs. When these APIs are vulnerable, cybercriminals can use them as an entry point to access your whole system. Use this API security checklist to assess whether your APIs are already secure.
4. Establishing Public Key Infrastructure (PKI)
Establishing PKI is very important in securing multiple client-server connections in an IoT deployment with numerous interconnected devices.
The basic idea is to establish end-to-end encryption (and facilitate secure decryption) of data transmissions between devices, especially for devices that transmit confidential and/or sensitive information.
In IoT projects that involve user inputs to websites (or web apps), for example in IoT projects with eCommerce functions, PKI is crucial.
5. Network segmentation
Some IoT devices and equipment are required to connect directly to the internet (not through an IoT management solution), and in such cases, it’s best to segment these devices into a separate network with limited/restricted access to the rest of the IoT network.
This allows us to better monitor this network segment to detect malicious activity and will prevent these issues from affecting the main network.
6. Employee Training
A crucial aspect of IoT security is “securing” the element of human resources.
For many people, IoT operations and security are new concepts, so it’s important to train your workers about the best practices in using the IoT devices and the IoT network as a whole to ensure secure use.
Security staff must also be trained on how to properly secure all potential access points. This may include introducing them to brand-new infrastructures and security challenges. Training should be conducted regularly to keep your team up-to-date on the latest threats and IoT security techniques/measures.
7. Consumer Education
If you are going to sell IoT products to consumers, you should properly communicate the potential hazards related to IoT and specific to the IoT product.
Provide consumers with clear documentation and exact steps to stay secure, including applying software updates as soon as possible and updating default passwords with strong and unique ones.
Educate consumers to only use IoT products that meet adequate security standards.
IoT Security Checklist
When establishing IoT security, it’s crucial to maintain a proactive stance: acknowledging the fact that the IoT network and all the elements within are always under threat.
It’s crucial to proactively consider the potential security risks introduced by each element in the IoT network and establish security measures accordingly.
You can use the following IoT security checklist for this purpose:
- Update all default credentials. If any device/equipment requires different local and remote passwords, update both. Make sure to use strong and long enough passwords, and make sure all passwords are unique.
- Check whether the product has hard-coded passwords. Avoid using them
- Use two-factor authentication when possible.
- Implement authentications and permissions for devices and all elements in the network.
- Only give authorizations when absolutely necessary
- Identify and carefully review security characteristics and privacy policies of apps and back-end services of each device/equipment. Avoid using any hardware that uses services with low security and privacy measures.
- Keep software and firmware up-to-date as soon as updates are available
- Avoid using products that no longer get updates from their vendors
- Closely monitor the lifecycle of hardware and software products so they can be removed when they are no longer updatable (no longer supported by vendors).
- Place IoT devices that connect directly to the internet on a separate network. We should be able to restrict monitoring traffic and prevent access to the main IoT network.
- The network should be firewalled properly
- The network must have established a monitoring system
- Identify and profile traffic to identify anomalies
- Make sure the device/equipment is well protected physically so intruders can’t steal it or perform crucial intrusion (i.e. factory reset, hacking via hardware port, etc. )
- Turn off any features that are not needed in the IoT project. This may include microphones, cameras, or connectivity. Perform physical covering/blocking when necessary.
- Turn off automatic connections (i.e. via WiFi) to prevent device intrusion. Isolate the device if necessary if it only needs to connect to a specific router.
- Establish end-to-end encryption whenever possible.
- Only use devices that support encryption
- Establish VPN or other means to limit data exposure on devices that don’t support encryption
IoT Security Is a Necessity
All IoT projects and applications are always at risk from various security threats.
It’s crucial to use only devices, equipment, and software solutions that are designed for security from the ground up. Also, it’s important to establish a clear IoT security strategy as early as possible when planning your IoT project.
By using the IoT security checklist we’ve shared above, you can also ensure all elements and potential access points of the IoT system are closely monitored.
Identifying and protecting your IoT devices and network can save your time, resources, and confidential data in the long run. So, although IoT security can be challenging to implement at first, it will be worth it in the long run.