Securing The Coming M2M Communications Boom

All points connect to exceed 60 billion devices by 2020

It is beyond dispute that Machine to Machine (M2M) technology and communications will influence our daily personal and business lives in the coming years. We define M2M communications as involving a device or devices communicating automatically using the mobile network, either to another machine or to another person through embedded mobile technology. These connections, in part, will allow the expansion of what is being termed the “Internet of things,” and telecommunications giant Ericsson predicts the number of devices connected through all points could exceed 60 billion by 2020.

We will see the technology used in everything from smart meters measuring energy use to embedded devices in automobiles that will allow remote car controlling and healthcare devices that will enable the transmission of patient health statistics from a device to a physician database.

Ericsson’s data give a sense of what the current rate of M2M communications are; the company’s statistics show that between 3 to 4 percent of traffic over its network is currently M2M related. This rate is equivalent to one in 20 messages having been generated and sent between machines.

Exponential growth in any interconnected environment brings up security concerns. Historically, in the technology industry, identifying and remedying security weak points has come months or years after the growth has occurred. For example, think of the early days of Internet use before antivirus technology became commonplace.

For the M2M environment, the very aspects that make it unique—namely, that it connects machines that contain essential information for our daily lives—also make securing those connections that much more complicated.

The industry still has time before the fast-paced growth occurs to put controls in place that will allow more secure M2M communications. There are five threat points that need to be understood, with underlying weaknesses addressed for better M2M security. Assessing the Threat Points

First, M2M connections can go unchecked. The beauty of M2M is that it automates the sharing of data that would previously have needed a human interaction. M2M-enabled smart meters are a perfect example of this, with the burden of regular—and potentially inaccurate—meter reading taken away from the customer and utility company alike. However, this autonomy brings its own threats. Because M2M-enabled devices can be left to function without human input, they also can be prime targets for malicious intent. With no watchful eye on their performance, threats and security breaches may go unmonitored, or worse, unnoticed. M2M deployments do not have the valuable input of traditional communications networks, in which human subscribers quickly alert the carrier to suspicious activity.

Second, the upgrade mentality for security does not apply to M2M. Few of the devices connected as part of an M2Menabled network are likely to be as relatively disposable to their customers as mobile phones currently are. In industries such as healthcare, where technology costs can stretch into the millions and even billions of dollars, the prospect of replacing technology regularly, if at all, is minute. The roles these devices perform and the business models they work within are expressly long-life, creating little possibility of upgrade.

Third, the devices are not always mobile. (This fact makes remote infected devices more difficult to identify and secure.) When thinking about data transmitted via a mobile carrier, you can assume that every device sending and receiving is mobile. But in M2M, there is usually static technology, such as the smart meters or hospital equipment that can’t be removed from their location. While it can be relatively easy to replace or treat compromised mobile phones, with users being able to just walk into the shop, the remote location and inherent inaccessibility of some M2M devices means that the cost of investigating and repairing on a case-by-case basis is likely to be much higher.

Fourth, less sophisticated devices need more protection. The latest smartphones and tablets come with complex, high-end operating systems that can be protected and reinforced against even the most advanced mobile security threats. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of all devices that will be connected to the M2M-enabled Internet of Things. Without hard drives and with any processing power often devoted solely to performing the operation it was designed for, the limited nature of many M2M devices means there is less ability to embed security software.

Finally, the risk, overall, for M2M is more profound—especially when you consider that M2M can involve utility and healthcare connections. M2M doesn’t just present a more widespread threat to deal with, it also presents one that is greater in terms of both severity and repercussions for networks and their customers alike. While an attack that affects human subscribers may be unpleasant for an MNO to deal with, consider the potential consequences should a similar attack on critical healthcare or utility grade equipment succeed. No longer is it just personal details at risk; instead, M2M can present a serious threat to our daily lives. A security breach that results in medical records being hacked or important meter readings not reaching a utility is evidently far more serious than a security issue that stops a homework assignment being sent to a parent’s mobile phone.

Even though we are in the early days of M2M connections, there are already examples of M2M weak points being exploited, either in an actual hack or in a proof of concept attack.

Secure access door hack. In early 2012, the researchers at AdaptiveMobile conducted its own experiment into one of the threats discussed in this report. Recreating a secure office environment and installing a SIM-controlled, commercially available M2M-enabled door lock, AdaptiveMobile specialists first tested the locking mechanism using normal test procedures. The door functioned as planned, with the required code “texted” from the authorized mobile phone to the M2M lock and allowing access. The door was then resealed, and a separate test was conducted. In this test, the specialists were not provided with the authorized mobile device and instead told to “hack” the door lock using a laptop.

Accessing the mobile network via the Internet, technicians were able to replicate the type of message the locking mechanism was expecting and to bypass the need to send the code from the authorized device. The locking mechanism, unable to distinguish between the “fake” message and what it would consider to be a “real” code, readily unlocked and provided our technicians with access.

Traffic light SIM swap. In January 2011, traffic lights in Johannesburg, South Africa, containing phone SIMs for signaling purposes were broken open, and the SIM cards were stolen. These SIM cards were then used to make phone calls worth millions of South African rand while the traffic lights were rendered inoperable, causing traffic chaos. Naturally, the cost of repairing the traffic lights was far more expensive than the SIM cards.

GPS location obtaining. Hacked M2M devices don’t only present an “inward” security threat. They also can be adapted to push data back to the malicious party as well. The April 2011 reverse engineering of a Zoombak GPS tracking device by security firm iSec partners revealed that location information could be obtained by sending an SMS to the SIM card present and requesting information from the device.

Car hacking. iSEC partners took it upon themselves to breach an M2M-enabled device, this time in July 2011. Researchers, using the same techniques proven successful a few months earlier, analyzed an M2M module in an automobile and revealed what “commands” it had been programmed to receive over SMS. Doing so allowed them to replicate the SMS messages using another device, enabling them to unlock and start the car remotely.

There are actions security providers can take today that can integrate with their existing network platforms and provide protection that bridges the gap between legacy “human-to-human” standards of protection and those required for M2M. A onesize- fits-all approach will not work with M2M. There needs to be targeted defenses and controls against specific M2M threats.

Any standard of network protection within M2M should include the following threat-prevention techniques:

Antivirus controls. Analysis of all messages and IP communications sent to and from M2M devices should be included to scan for potential viruses. Viruses present one of the greatest single threats to M2M and must be vigorously defended against. Traffic-analysis controls. Intelligent network protection tools should be able to scan and analyze any and all communications— rejecting those that don’t explicitly match network format requirements.

Identity controls. Making sure that communications are being issued from an identifiable device helps to reduce the danger of major security threats making their way onto an M2M network.

Malware identification. In the unlikely event that a threat does make it past the surrounding network controls, malware identification can help to quickly identify infected devices and mitigate the risk of the threat spreading further.

Security policy. Just as policy controls can help to govern a “human-to-human” network, in the M2M world, they can provide privacy and protection by defining which devices and device types can send and receive to each other, when, and by what bearer. At a network protection level, policies should be enabled for multiple M2M devices via a single authorization point.

These measures are not a panacea but will help in the secure growth and use of M2M in the coming months and years. We are on the edge of an exciting time in which M2M has the potential to transform the way we live, work, communicate and interact, and having these communications be secure is essential.

This article originally appeared in the December 2012 issue of Security Today.


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