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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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Cars

“Hello BMW” – Now we’re talking, with X5

BMW brings impressive safety features and a built-in voice assistant to its 4th generation X5, writes BRYAN TURNER.

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Marking 20 years since its release, the BMW X5 has been given a substantial redesign for its fourth generation. A major revamp of aesthetics and functionality affirms this luxury Sports Activity Vehicle’s (SAV) position in the market.

New safety features not only make it safer but also more comfortable to drive. The redesigned headlights utilise laser lighting, which eliminates glare on reflective objects like signboards in dark driving conditions. The laser lighting technology also extends the distance of bright lighting to about 500 meters, 200 meters further than the previous generation.

The Driving Assist Professional package, an option for the SAV, comprises a steering and lane control assistant as well as a lane keeping assistant. These assistants work closely with a smart collision evasion system, which helps avoid collisions with vehicles or pedestrians suddenly appearing in the driver’s path. As soon as an evasive manoeuvre is detected, the system assists the driver with steering inputs to direct the vehicle into a clear, adjacent lane.

BMW Operating System 7.0, the latest version of the car’s software, focuses on customisability. This means that more aspects of the vehicle can be set up in a way that is most comfortable for the driver. For example, the 12.3” infotainment panel features a home screen which uses a three-tile layout, where one can have one large tile and two smaller tiles. These tiles can be swapped around and configured to the point where drivers no longer have to search through menus to get what they would need, as their favourites sit on a customised home screen.

The X5 gets a voice assistant with the BMW Assistant Professional. “Hello BMW” will wake the onboard voice assistant for voice commands. These voice commands could be anything from “Play rock music” to “Is my tyre pressure okay?”. Renaming the voice assistant’s wake prompt is also possible if the driver has named their car something other than BMW.

Keeping in line with the latest technology, the X5 features options for a wireless charging tray in the front and two additional USB Type-C ports. Other features include an adaptive navigation system, a hard-drive-based multimedia system with 20 GB of memory, Bluetooth and WiFi connectivity.

BMW’s attention to minor details goes a long way with massage seats and thermo-cupholders. Electrically adjustable and heated sports seats are fitted standard. Additional options include seat massage functionality and ventilated seats. The thermo-cupholder option allows a driver to keep a beverage heated or cooled during a drive.

Unlocking the X5 with a smartphone will soon be a reality with a planned update to the BMW Connected Drive app, in the second quarter of 2019. BMW Digital Key brings functionality to lock and unlock the car with a smartphone’s NFC chip, which eliminates the need for a traditional car key. The driver will simply hold the smartphone to the door’s handle and the car will unlock. Once the driver is inside, the smartphone can be placed on the built-in wireless charging tray, and the NFC chip will register again to verify the driver. From there, the engine can be started.

Overall, exciting technology features come with the new X5 and even more impressive features will come with software updates in 2019.

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ERP needs asset management

A single, integrated EAM and ERP solution can power an asset-intensive business into the future, says MOHAMED CASSOOJEE, MD and Country Manager, IFS South Africa and Africa.

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Most Enterprise Resource Planning software originated in the manufacturing sector as materials resource planning (MRP) solutions for organisations that needed to manage a lot of inventory. From there, they were rapidly developed into solutions for every industry imaginable.

But these roots mean that most standalone ERP software isn’t quite enough on its own to address the needs of organisations in asset-intensive industries such as metal foundries, mining, oil and gas, pulp and paper, energy and utilities, and construction and engineering.

Companies in these sectors are not managing inventory as much as they are managing the capacity of a fixed asset over its lifecycle as well as handling large-scale infrastructure projects with long planning cycles. This is where enterprise asset management (EAM) comes into play, offering capabilities that are not found in typical ERP systems.

EAM systems are built to help organisations manage assets such as plants, heavy machinery, pipelines and industrial-class vehicles. These solutions enable organisations to track the location and status of assets and asset objects in real time, schedule work orders to maintain and fix the assets, and manage the storage of spare parts required to service them.

As Africa’s governments, state-owned enterprises and private sector step up infrastructure investment, EAM has a vital role to play in ensuring that organisations drive the highest possible value from their new assets, whether these are telecoms networks, railway systems, ports or power plants.

According to the World Bank, Africa needs to spend around $93 billion a year over the next decade to address its infrastructure backlogs — about one-third of that cost is for maintenance. In 2008, World Bank found that about 30% of the infrastructure assets of a typical African country needed rehabilitation.

These numbers point to the urgent need for organisations across the continent to take a more proactive and preventative outlook towards maintenance of their key infrastructure and assets. Implementation of EAM can enable organisations to better track, manage and maintain assets to prolong their lifespan and enhance return on investment.

From asset planning to construction to operation to decommissioning and replacement, EAM allows organisations to maintain, manage and optimise assets over the entire asset lifecycle. By helping companies to increase asset productivity and availability – while reducing total cost of ownership – EAM can have a direct impact on profitability and financial sustainability.

Good EAM solutions can also be paired with corporate performance management and analytics tools to let organisations analyse operation disruptions and determine and address the causes, such as maintenance issues, inadequate training, or design faults.

Technological advances, along with the associated price drop for smart products being developed for the Internet of Things (IoT), now make it possible to monitor almost any asset in real-time from nearly any location across the globe. This further boosts the power and usefulness of an EAM solution. It is imperative that the EAM solutions that are implemented are built on robust, newer technologies that can easily support IOT, AI and smart bots.

EAM and ERP: a critical partnership

To sum up, ERP manages business operations, while the EAM system manages all the monitoring and operations of the asset. That means for most companies it isn’t an either-or choice because they need both EAM and ERP to drive optimal business performance.

Some organisations opt for so-called ‘best of breed’ EAM and ERP solutions from different providers. Yet integration can be a headache. The challenges include master data synchronisation and transaction integration. The company may also need to consider whether the ERP or EAM system is the better fit for a particular transaction or asset type.

However, for most organisations in asset-intensive industries, the ideal solution is an ERP system with extensive EAM capabilities: a system built from the ground up to manage not only basic business functions but also assets and their maintenance. Such a solution provides one complete solution spanning key processes and data.

This approach enables the organisation to truly manage and maximise value over asset lifecycles. It also empowers the enterprise to organise operations around the assets and individual asset objects it uses to create value for stakeholders, customers and the community.

For most asset-intensive companies, delivering EAM capabilities as part and parcel of an integrated ERP solution, simplifies their business systems landscape, giving them a single source of truth. The same arguments apply to project management and workforce management systems.

Organisations seeking to transform their business by standardising processes and leveraging reliable, real-time data will benefit from an ERP system with all of these capabilities, setting them up to adopt IoT, artificial intelligence, or whatever other new technologies are coming up next.

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