Can my light bulbs DoS me?

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Denial of Service (DoS) attacks are situations where an IT system is deliberately overwhelmed to a point where normal activity is no longer possible. A DoS attack usually comes from a single source. Where the attack comes from many sources we call this a Distributed DoS, or DDoS.

DDoS traffic is usually sent from many computers from around the world. These computers will have been hijacked and grouped together into a botnet which are then controlled by the bad player. These computers usually have been compromised because security patches have not been applied.

For some time InfoSec people have been wondering what impact the Internet of Things (IoT) will have on things like DDoS. The IoT generally refers to all those everyday objects that can now connect to the Internet. Think CCTV, toys, nappies, cars, door bells etc.

At the KiwiCon conference last year in Wellington, and at other conferences,  some of the presentations talk about the security of various IoT devices. Some of the findings were

  • Certain brands of car immobilisers could be activated by other people by attacking the website where the device was registered. This was particularly concerning for those vehicles that could have the fuel system shut down. Imagine suddenly running out of fuel while in the middle lane of a motorway doing 110 km/hr!
  • Home security devices being sold in NZ could be controlled by other parties.
  • Baby monitors can be listened into, and worse.
  • Barbie Dolls are relatively hard to take over.

So are the IoT really a problem? In late September a DDoS attack was launched against a well known security writer. The attack forced his website off line for a time by the huge volume of traffic sent to it. What is interesting is that most of the devices involved in the attack were on line cameras (it is estimated that about 1.5 million cameras were involved).

The security issues with the IoT may well turn out to be a bigger problem than Y2K. When preparing for Y2K it was possible to identify likely systems that needed fixing, and then update them. In the end a Y2K disaster was avoided since we understood how to fix the problems.

The problem with IoT is that we cant identify and/or fix most of the devices. Few manufacturers of an IoT device include options for efficiently getting updates onto the device. Almost no one will commit to providing support for any set time. For most devices, if there is a significant security issues with them, it will be a case of throwing them away.

So this comes back to the original question. Can my light bulbs DoS me?

Well, the current versions probably cannot launch a co-ordinated network attack, which is good. However, a bad player may well be able to take control of your light bulbs. Think about the result of all your lights coming on at 3 am. Perhaps we should call this a DoSl (Denial of Sleep).

What to do? Some of the functionality of some IoT devices is truly exciting. We are going to see more and more options out there. When buying these devices we need to start thinking about the impact if things go wrong. Ask the retailer about security updates. If updates are available ask for how long support will be provided.

Finally, be prepared to throw the device away. This may end up your only option.

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