Data Secure

Keep IoT devices and data safe from threats

The risk posed by hackers to the Internet of Things (IoT) is a hot topic and there have already been some serious real-world attacks. Any organization deploying network-connected devices would be well advised to take a deeper look at the risks posed and take steps to protect themselves.

When we talk about any risk we must consider the frequency with which incidents may occur and the impact that an incident would have on the organization. Some events may be fairly common but carry a low impact while others are rarer but carry tremendous consequences. Determining what we realistically should be worried about will help decide the measures that are appropriate to defend an IoT installation against attacks.

We must consider what the IoT device itself is being used for. Many IoT devices are used for physical security, such as cameras and door access control, and if they were compromised could be expected to lead to a compromise of physical security, which may be severe depending on the type of facility. Moving to the higher impact end of the spectrum, most hospitals now use medical devices that are connected to the network and a breach of those devices could potentially be a matter of life and death for the patients relying on them. On a broader scale, utilities are using more IoT devices for monitoring and management of infrastructure. A successful attack could impact many thousands or even millions of people.

The direct risk posed by the devices themselves may be serious but it is only one aspect of their risk. As modern IoT devices contain as much computing power as personal computers from only a few years ago and are often based on the same underlying architectures and software, they can also be leveraged to attack other network resources. A poorly protected IoT device could be used to attack a sensitive server or database and then exfiltrate the resulting data.

Many organizations may believe they have nothing of value on their network that an attacker would want (I would disagree, attackers always want bank login credentials), but even in this case an attacker can leverage compromised IoT devices to attack other organizations. We saw this in 2016 with the Mirai botnet, which was primarily based on IP cameras that had default or backdoor passwords; the resulting attacks knocked many of the largest websites offline.

Protecting IoT devices requires efforts from both the vendors that create and sell these devices and the users who install them. If a device isn’t designed properly there will be no way to secure it regardless of what steps the user takes, while even products with the best builtin security will require some effort on the part of users during the deployment process.


IoT devices need to be designed with security “baked in”. This means using proper authentication and encryption for both data transmission and administration. Other common traps need to be avoided as well, like using the same default password for every device (users are unlikely to change them) or, even worse, creating a backdoor account with a hardcoded password (these are fairly easy for attackers to find and extremely easy to exploit once found).

Vendors also have to consider the lifespan of their products. Many consumer product companies have had a “sell it and forget it approach,” which presents an enormous risk when software and network connectivity is in play. A vulnerability in a 10-year-old product is potentially more valuable to an attacker than a vulnerability in a just-released product, as the installed base of the older product is likely to be much larger. Vendors must take reports of security vulnerabilities seriously and release patches, even for long-discontinued products.


The devices themselves will require some security configuration. Removing default passwords and replacing them with strong passwords is one of the most important steps, but other settings should be reviewed as well. Depending on the device these could include encryption settings, lists of IP addresses that are allowed to administer the device, and authorizations for interactions with other devices.

The devices themselves will also require maintenance and monitoring just like a PC. Patches should be applied quickly in order to address security vulnerabilities and the network traffic generated by the devices should be monitored to make sure that they have not been co-opted for use by an attacker.

The devices themselves should also be protected, just like any other computer. This means firewalling them off from the Internet. Search engines, like the one available at, make it easy for attackers to search for vulnerable devices that are exposed.


Many IoT devices leverage cloud resources. This may be for remote storage of data or to enable easy administration via a web frontend. It’s important to remember that “cloud” resources are just another set of computers in a datacenter with all of the same security concerns of a regular computer, only in this case the user is relying on the cloud provider to handle the security.

Users of cloud services should once again consider the risk posed by the compromise or loss of any data that they are about to place in the cloud and make sure that contracts with cloud providers include provisions for an appropriate level of security. If vendors aren’t willing to commit to securing the data then cloud services may not be the right fit.

This article originally appeared in the June 2017 issue of Security Today.


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