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The fridges are coming to get you

Smart homes have arrived, but consumers let in more than they think, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

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It’s become a cliché that the smart fridge – one with sensors inside and connection to the Internet on the outside – will one day automatically order milk or replenish other items before they run out.

The reality is not only different, but also darker: smart appliances have little protection from hackers, and may be a way for cybercriminals to hijack devices, as well as invade privacy. Especially as smart TVs become standard – both in South Africa and across the world – we are exposing ourselves to dangers we don’t even know exist.

From TVs and fridges to security cameras and Wi-Fi routers, the very devices that are meant to make our lives easier are also the ones that make us more vulnerable. And this is not theoretical. As long ago as 2014, cybercriminals created a “botnet” – when a large amount of hacked computers are used in concert to mount a spam or other attack – which hijacked 100 000 devices, including routers, TVs and even a fridge. 

“For some time we’ve seen attacks on security cameras, routers, and networking equipment,” said Marco Preuss, head of research at cybersecurity leaders Kaspersky Lab. “There are a lot of things happening to abuse these devices for malicious activities against other users, but also using them as entry point to the owner’s system.”

Preuss was speaking at the recent Kaspersky Transparency Summit in Zurich, when the company announced the opening of a Transparency Centre in Switzerland for regulators and other organisations to view its software code directly. 

A panel discussion during the event, on the risks and rewards of transparency in cybersecurity, highlighted the absence of trust in technology. In the past, if a cybersecurity company said one could trust them, most people believed it. But that time is past, said Jan-Peter Kleinhans, project director for a project called Security in the Internet of Things at a German think tank, Stiftung Neue Verantwortung.

“The term ‘trust me’ is 1990s cybersecurity,” he said. “If someone says trust me, I want proof of it. How do we trust them?”

This problem will become far worse once we cannot trust even appliance makers, he said in an interview after the event. 

“In the future every product will be connected. For commercial off-the-shelf devices (COTS), we already see rapidly increasing demand for voice assistants, smart lighting, and Smart TVs. So the question is not IF something gets connected but WHEN. 

“All these devices will be vulnerable. Here the question is more how easy it is for criminals to exploit those devices – right now it’s extremely easy. For COTS devices I think the biggest problem are botnets that form a globally distributed botnet that the criminal can rent out for attacks against websites or credit card fraud or attacking production servers.”

The worst of it, he said, is that there is little the consumer can do. Kleinhans called on regulators to steps in, and pointed to the European Union’s Cybersecurity Act as a potential solution.

“It focuses on voluntary certification and security standards in the hopes that manufacturers see IT security as a competitive advantage. I don’t think voluntary certification by itself is enough, but it’s a solid first step. At the same time there is a growing debate about ‘software liability’ in many European countries. I think over the next five years we will see tighter and clearer regulation regarding IT security in general.”

In the meantime, it is not only the home user whois at risk, said Preuss.

“It affects everyone from consumer to small and medium businesses to enterprises. There is no limit in this whole environment, because more and more gets connected. In Germany you have smart connected production facilities, and public infrastructure like power plants and water supply that gets more and more connected, so that one can control what power needs to be produced to keep the network as stable as possible.”

The danger will escalate as energy production shifts from “classic nuclear and coal power plants” to solar and wind-based energy systems, which all depend on smart connected systems to pull their energy into the grid and keep it stable, said Preuss.

“Every company is an IT (information technology) company nowadays, whether they are working with wood or stone or clothes. The problem is everybody still does not realise they are an IT company, because most are still in the mindset of just working with wood and creating furniture, for example. No, you’re an IT company, because all your machines are connected, all your manufacturers are connected, and all your customers are online and connected. You have all this customer information digitalised.”

Preuss outlined a wide range of potential cyber attacks in this environment, from ransom attempts by encrypting company data to stealing company information to pretending to have cracked your account through password leaks and demanding payment not to publish sensitive information.

“The borders between consumer, small and medium business, enterprise, and government are less and less visible, ands everyone of us is now a node in the whole network. On the Internet, there is no longer a difference anymore between personal and business life. When I am private on a social network, I can still be targeted by people trying to get into my company. Everything is connected.”

The best known example of a potential danger is the idea that smart fridges can be accessed by hackers and pulled together into a massive network, or botnet, that launches what is known as a DDoS, or distributed denial of service attack, when a large number of computer attempt to connect to the same computer at the same time, causing it to crash. The most widely distributed software used for this is called Mira (see sidebar), which looks for unprotected Internet of Things devices. It is available as open source software for any hacker to download.

Said Preuss, “Mira was automated to spread on web cameras connected to the Internet by using default user name and password combinations. In most cases, users don’t change the default user name and password or don’t know how or are not aware that they should. Many of these systems also ship with very old hardware and you can’t update them, or updates are not shipped by vendors.

“The result is that you have less control of these devices. Just on the consumer level, you already probably have a router, smart TV, and smart security system. You may have smart controllers in kitchen. We’re talking a lot of different devices and platforms from a lot of different vendors.”

The home user, said Preuss, needs to be like system administrators from enterprises in the past, but the home user is not an IT expert.

“Yet these devices still do not offer the ease of use or functionality, by design, to make them more secure by ease of update and configuration.”

What can consumers do?

“Consumers can think about which device they buy, ask about security, ask about transparency, what happens with data, and do I need to connect it to the Internet? Just because a fridge has Wi-Fi, doesn’t mean I need to connect it.” 

  • Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter on @art2gee and on YouTube

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