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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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Small SA town goes smartphone-only

Vodacom partners with farming business to upgrade all residents of Wakkerstroom from 2G devices to smartphones

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All residents of the small town of Wakkerstroom, which straddles Mpumalanga and kwaZulu-Natal provinces, have had their 2G feature phones upgraded to 3G devices.

The initiative is a result of Vodacom partnering with BPG Langfontein, a farming business that employs the majority of the people living in Wakkerstroom. It is now the first smartphone-only town in South Africa. This is a model the network provider says it hopes to replicate across the country as part of its mission to connect people who live in deep rural areas and are still dependent on 2G networks.

Wakkerstroom, is the second oldest town in Mpumalanga province, on the KwaZulu-Natal border, 27 km east of Volksrust and 56 km south-east of Amersfoort.  

“There are growing expectations for big corporates the size of Vodacom to serve a social purpose, and for us to use our resources and core capabilities to make a significant contribution in transforming the lives of ordinary people,” says Zakhele Jiyane, Managing Executive for Vodacom Mpumalanga. “We are helping to remove communication barriers, so that citizens in the area can be part of the digital revolution and reap the associated benefits. By moving the more than 1400 farm workers from 2G to 3G devices, this will also free much needed spectrum and this spectrum can be re-farmed to provide for faster networks such as 3G and 4G.

“Crucially, the move opens a new world of connectivity for farm workers in Wakkerstroom. As a result, most people in the area will now be able to use the Vodacom network to connect on the net and access online government services, eHealth services such as Mum&Baby and eCommerce. Learners can now surf the internet for the first time and access Vodacom’s eSchool free of charge and those who are actively looking for jobs can start using their smartphones and tablets to apply for jobs over the internet on Vodacom’s zero-rated career sites. This will be key for driving growth to the benefit of people living in this area.”

Vodacom has already deployed 4G base stations in Wakkestroom as part of this initiative.

For the next phase of this project, says Vodacom, it is going to educate the farm workers about data and the benefits of the Internet. Vodacom will also look at various ways in which it can help empower members of this community in areas of education, gender-based violence and health.

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Facebook fact-checking goes to 10 more African countries

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Facebook today announced the expansion of its Third-Party Fact-Checking programme to 10 additional African countries, which now join  Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Cameroon and Senegal in the project,

In partnership with Agence France-Presse (AFP), the France 24 Observers, Pesa Check and Dubawa, this programme forms part of its work in helping assess the accuracy and quality of news people find on Facebook, whilst reducing the spread of misinformation on its platform.

Working with a network of fact-checking organizations, certified by the non-partisan International Fact-Checking Network, third-party fact-checking will now be available in Ethiopia, Zambia, Somalia and Burkina Faso through AFP, Uganda and Tanzania through both Pesa Check and AFP, Democratic Republic of Congo and Cote d’Ivoire through the France 24 Observers and AFP, Guinea Conakry through the France 24 Observers, and Ghana through Dubawa.

Feedback from the Facebook community is one of many signals Facebook uses to raise potentially false stories to fact-checkers for review. Local articles will be fact-checked alongside the verification of photos and videos. If one of our fact-checking partners identifies a story as false, Facebook will show it lower in News Feed, significantly reducing its distribution.

Kojo Boakye, Facebook Head of Public Policy, Africa, said: “The expansion of third-party fact-checking to now cover 15 countries in a little over a year shows firsthand our commitment and dedication to the continent, alongside our recent local language expansion as part of this programme. Taking steps to help tackle false news on Facebook is a responsibility we take seriously, we know misinformation is a problem, and these are important steps in continuing to address this issue. We know that third-party fact-checking alone is not the solution, it is one of many initiatives and programmes we are investing in to help to improve the quality of information people see on Facebook. While we’ve made great progress, we will keep investing to ensure Facebook remains a place for all ideas, but not for the spread of false news.”

When third-party fact-checkers fact-check a news story, Facebook will show these in Related Articles immediately below the story in News Feed. Page Admins and people on Facebook will also receive notifications if they try to share a story or have shared one in the past that’s been determined to be false, empowering people to decide for themselves what to read, trust, and share.

Providing fact-checking in English and French across eight countries, Phil Chetwynd, AFP Global News Director said: “AFP is delighted to be expanding its fact-checking project with Facebook. We are known for the high quality of our journalism from across Africa and we will be leveraging our unparalleled network of bureaus and journalists on the continent to combat misinformation.”

Eric Mugendi, Managing Editor from Pesa Check who will provide fact-checking services in Swahili and English added: “Social networks like Facebook haven’t just changed how Africans consume the news. Social media is often the primary access to digital content or the ‘Internet’ for many Africans. They shape our perceptions of the world, our public discourse, and how we interact with public figures. This project helps us dramatically expand our fact-checking to debunk claims that could otherwise cause real-world harm. The project helps us respond more quickly and directly. We’re seeing real positive results in our interactions with both publishers and the public itself. The project also helps our fact-checks reach a far larger audience than we would otherwise. This has helped us better understand the information vacuum and other viral dynamics that drive the spread of false information in Africa. Our growing impact is a small but tangible contribution to better informed societies in Africa.”

Caroline Anipah, Programme Officer, Dubawa (Ghana) said: “Dubawa is excited to be in Ghana where the misinformation and disinformation have become widespread as a result of technological advancement and increasing internet penetration. Dubawa intends to raise the quality of information available to the public with the ultimate aim of curbing the spread of misinformation and disinformation and promoting good governance and accountability.”

Derek Thomson, editor-in-chief of the France 24 Observers, said: “Our African users are constantly sending us questionable images and messages they’ve received via social media, asking us ‘Is this true? Can you check it?’ It’s our responsibility as fact-checking journalists to verify the information that’s circulating, and get the truth back out there. Participating in the Facebook programme helps ensure that our fact-checks are reaching the people who shared the false news in the first place.”

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