The Federal Trade Commission is now insisting on cyber security protection
- By Scott Lindley
- May 01, 2017
Hacking has become a threat far bigger
than most think. Indeed, the greatest threat
to national security these days comes from
not from aircraft carriers or infantry divisions,
but a computer with a simple Internet
connection located anywhere in the world.
The U.S. federal government suffered a staggering 61,000
cyber-security breaches that it knows of, last year alone. Protecting
your users from professional hackers is imperative.
Odds are that most of us do not work for organizations as
large as the U.S. government or as big of target as a major corporation.
That should not give you rest. Many hackers are just teenage
boys in basements just trying to get into any system that they
can. It’s referred to as “opportunistic hacking.” And, when they
get in, they like to change code that will create mayhem. Think
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Providing anti-hack card-based access
control systems eliminates one of the more popular opportunities
that Junior likes to leverage.
To give businesses an incentive to meet these cybersecurity
threats, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has decided that
it will hold the business community responsible for failing to
implement good cybersecurity practices and is now filing lawsuits
against those that don’t. An appeals court backed its lawsuit
against the hotel chain operator Wyndham Worldwide for not
protecting consumers’ information and, just recently, the FTC
filed a lawsuit against D-Link and its U.S. subsidiary, alleging
that it used inadequate safeguards on its wireless routers and IP
cameras that left them vulnerable to hackers.
The FTC is recognizing a problem that some security practitioners
do not appreciate. To get into Information Technology
(IT) and critical infrastructure Operational Technology (OT)
systems, hackers are looking for the easiest path in, leveraging
many different physical assets, including those within the enterprise
security system itself. They typically start with hardware
which will give them access to specific computers. Then, those
computers will give them access to both the target’s external and
Why do we mention both IT and OT systems? It’s because
most everyone understands what IT is; very few relate to OT. IT
security lives in the context of networks, servers, storage, apps
and data. IT involves a system where hosts are talking to lots of
other hosts and where there are frequent patch cycles - in weeks
or sometimes days - in response to expected and known cyber
threats. IT security basically protects data (information). An attack
on the IT system can create very big problems from stealing
personal information such as Social Security numbers, HIPPA
protected files and other privacy/ID data to transferring funds. If
this isn’t bad enough, however, the new trend of attacking the OT
system can be even worse.
Out back, beyond the white collar offices and data centers
and, often, miles away are the industrial control systems (ICS)
that run organizations’ operations. In industries as diverse as
oil and gas, power generation and distribution, healthcare (i.e.
MRI’s), transportation systems, manufacturing and many others,
ICS’s, by connecting sensors, machines and instruments, create
automated solutions that increase productivity. They control local
operations such as opening and closing valves and breakers,
collecting data from sensor systems to turn up the heat of furnaces
and monitoring the local environment for alarm conditions.
When hacked by sophisticated government backed entities, havoc
can run rampant.
For instance, a little over a year ago, around 1.4 million homes
in western Ukraine lost their electricity for several hours. This
was a very sophisticated attack. Once the hackers had access, they
manually opened the breakers. They then employed theBlack-
Energy virus to hinder efforts to locate and restore the opened
breakers. There was also a simultaneous Distributed Denial of
Service (DDOS) on the utilities’ call centers to slow down customer
reports of outages.
Closer to home it was learned that breaches of the operating
system at a dam outside of New York had been attributed to
hackers working for companies that performed work on behalf
of the Iranian Government, including the Islamic Revolutionary
Guard Corps. Here the perpetrators successfully obtained unauthorized
access to the Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition
(SCADA) systems of the dam. Fortunately, in this case the FBI
found those behind the cyber intrusion and the Justice Department
held them accountable.
Security Professionals Can Be at Fault
Interestingly, some security people don’t seem to secure their own
security equipment. Over the past year, as noted already by the
FTC, users are learning that today’s IP-enabled contactless card
readers and wireless cameras have become favorite targets of
hackers. Unsecured, they provide irresistible backdoors. Thus,
new specifications are needed for electronic access control projects.
Let’s begin with understanding one the easiest problems to correct
with security equipment. Were you aware that by simply putting
the default installer code in a disarmed state, it can be used
to view the user codes including the master code or to change or
create a new code? Therefore, if a potential unauthorized person
gains access to a panel in the unarmed state, using the installer
code gives that person access to all installed hardware and will
even allow creation of a new user code or change of a current user
code. This code then trumps the master/ other user codes.
So, if the installer does not change the default code, the user
might as well be giving a user code to everyone. Less than 30 seconds
is all it takes to view the master, all other user codes, or even
create a new one. Yes, you reply, but what if the installer says that
they don’t have the default installer code? Unfortunately, too often,
these codes can be found online by anyone that knows how to use
a simple Google search. And, of course, once inside the system,
the hacker can get also access to the rest of the computer system.
Sometimes the problem is within the software itself. Oftentimes,
the default code is embedded in the app to provide a mechanism to
let the device still be managed even if the administrator’s custom
pass code is lost. However, it is a poor developer practice to embed
passwords into an app’s shipped code, especially unencrypted.
Adding to the problem is that Wiegand, the industry standard
over-the-air protocol commonly used to communicate credential
data from a contactless access credential to an electronic access
reader, is no longer inherently secure due to its original obscure
and non-standard nature. Today, no one would accept usernames
and passwords being sent in the clear nor should they accept such
vulnerable credential data. ID harvesting has become one of the
most lucrative hacking activities. In these attacks, one or more a
credential’s identifiers are cloned, or captured, and are then retransmitted
via a small electronic device.
For this reason, options are now available that can be added
to the readers. The first is MAXSecure, which provides a higher-
security handshake, or code, between the proximity or smart
card, tag and reader to help ensure that readers will only accept
information from specially coded credentials. The second is Valid
ID, a relatively new anti-tamper feature available with contactless
smartcard readers, cards and tags. Embedded, it can add an
additional layer of authentication assurance to NXP’s MIFARE
DESFire EV1 smartcard platform, operating independently, in
addition to, and above the significant standard level of security
that DESFire EV1 delivers. Valid ID lets a smartcard reader effectively
help verify that the sensitive access control data programmed
to a card or tag is indeed genuine and not counterfeit.
Role of the Access Control Provider
First of all, when considering any security application, it is critical
that the access control provider needs to realistically assess
the threat of a hack to a facility. For example, if access control
is being used merely as a convenience to the alternative of using
physical keys, chances are the end user has a reduced risk of being
hacked. However, if the end user is using their access system as
an element to their overall security system because of a perceived
or imminent threat due to the nature of what they do, produce
or house at their facility, they may indeed be at higher risk and
they should consider methods to mitigate the risk of a hack. Here
are a few steps that may be considered in reducing the danger of
hacking into a Wiegand-based system.
- Install only readers that are fully potted. Potting is a hard
epoxy seal that does not allow access to the reader’s internal
electronics from the unsecured side of the building. An immediate
upgrading is recommended for readers that fail to meet
- Make certain the reader’s mounting screws are always hidden
from normal view. Make use of security screws whenever
- Embed contactless readers inside the wall, not simply on the
outside, effectively hiding them from view. Or, if that is not
possible and physical tampering remains an issue, consider
upgrading the site to readers that provide both ballistic and
- Make use of reader cable with a continuous overall foil shield
tied to a solid earth ground in a single location. This helps
block signals from being induced onto the individual conductors
making up the cable as well as those signals that may be
gained from the reader cable.
- Deploy readers with a pig tail, not a connector. Use extended
length pig tails to assure that connections are not made immediately
behind the reader.
- Run reader cabling through a metal conduit, securing it from
the outside world. Make certain the metal conduit is tied to
an earth ground.
- Add a tamper feature, such as Valid ID, commonly available
on many leading access control readers.
Use the “card present” line commonly available on many of
today’s access control readers. This signal line lets the access
control panel know when the reader is transmitting data.
- Provide credentials other than those formatted in the open,
industry standard 26-bit Wiegand. Not only is the 26-bit Wiegand
format available for open use but many of the codes have
been duplicated multiple times. Alternatives can include ABA
Track II, OSDP, RS485 and TCP/IP.
- Offer the customer cards that can be printed and used as photo
badges, which are much less likely to be shared.
- Employ a custom format with controls in-place to govern duplication.
- Offer a smart card solution that employs sophisticated cryptographic
security techniques, such as AES 128-bit.
- Make available non-traditional credentials with an anti-playback
routine, such as transmitters instead of standard cards
and tags. Long range transmitters offer the additional benefit
of not requiring a reader be installed on the unsecure side of
the door. Instead they can be installed in a secure location,
such as the security closet, perhaps up to 200 feet away.
- Offer a cutting edge, highly proprietary contactless smartcard
technology such as Legic® advant.
- Provide 2-factor readers including contactless and PIN technologies. Suggest users roll PINs on a regular basis. If required,
offer a third factor, normally a biometric technology
(face, fingerprint, voice, vein or hand).
Assure additional security system components are available.
Such systems can also play a significant role in reducing the likelihood
of an attack as well as mitigating the impact of a hack
attack should it occur:
Intrusion. Should the access control system be hacked and
grant entry to a wrong individual, have a burglar alarm system in
place to detect and annunciate the intrusion.
Video. If the access control system is hacked, granting entry
to an unauthorized individual, have a video system in place to
detect, record and annunciate the intrusion.
Guards. If the system is hacked and intruders are let in, make
sure that guards in the control room as well as those performing
a regular tour receive an alert notifying them that someone has
physically tampered with the access control system.
We must always stay one step in front of the bad guys. With
the proper tools, any of these assaults can be defended.
Adding Encryption into an
Access Control System
One aspect of securing a card’s information is to make the internal
numbers unusable; they must be encrypted. To read them,
the system needs access to a secret key or password that provides
decryption. Modern encryption algorithms play a vital role in assuring
Authentication. The origin of a message.
Integrity. Contents of a message have not been changed.
Non-repudiation. The message sender cannot deny sending the
Here is how it works. The number is encrypted using an encryption
algorithm and an encryption key. This generates cipher
text that can only be viewed in its original form if decrypted with
the correct key. Today’s encryption algorithms are divided into
two categories: symmetric and asymmetric.
Symmetric-key ciphers use the same key, or secret, for encrypting
and decrypting a message or file. The most widely used
symmetric-key cipher is AES (Advanced Encryption Standard),
which is used by the government to protect classified information.
Another common symmetric cipher, noted for its high speed of
transaction, is the TEA (tiny encryption algorithm). It was originally
designed at the Cambridge Computer Laboratory.
Asymmetric cryptography uses two different, but mathematically
linked, keys: one public and one private. The public key can
be shared with everyone, whereas the private key must be kept
secret. RSA (named after Misters Rivest, Shamir and Adleman)
is the most widely used asymmetric algorithm.
Today, 13.56 MHz smart cards are used to provide increased
security compared to 125 KHz proximity cards. One of the first
terms you will discover in learning about smart cards is “MIFARE,”
a technology from NXP Semiconductors. MIFARE
enables 2-way communications between the card and the reader.
MIFARE Classic was an original version of the MIFARE
standard used in contactless cards. It stores the card number on
one of its sectors, and then encrypts the communication between
the card and reader to theoretically make it impossible or, at least,
very difficult to clone a card. Unfortunately, a security flaw was
discovered in the MIFARE Classic standard which meant that,
with the right knowledge and hardware, a card could still be
cloned or another card in the series created.
The newest of the MIFARE standards, DESFire EV1, includes
a cryptographic module on the card itself to add an additional
layer of encryption to the card / reader transaction. This is
amongst the highest standard of card security currently available.
MIFARE DESFire EV1 protection is therefore ideal for sales to
providers wanting to use secure multi-application smart cards in
access management, public transportation schemes or closedloop
e-payment applications. They are fully compliable with the
requirements for fast and highly secure data transmission, flexible
memory organization and provide interoperability with existing
Additional encryption on the card, transaction counters and
other methods known in cryptography are then employed to
make cloned cards useless or enable the back office to detect a
fraudulent card and put it on a blacklist. Systems that work with
online readers only (i.e., readers with a permanent link to the
back office) are easier to protect than systems that have offline
readers, since real-time checks are not possible and blacklists cannot
be updated as frequently with offline systems.
Don’t Let Them Hack via the
Access System You Specify
Protecting your customers’ organization(s) from hackers is imperative.
The threats have grown to include sophisticated government
backed entities and teenage mischief makers. In either case,
these bad actors are targeting both IT and OT systems, often with
the result of imperiling our national security. With knowledge
of what hackers seek and the remedies available to thwart them,
anti-hacking specifications are now mandatory. If, for no other
reason, the FTC is now providing new motivations.
This article originally appeared in the May 2017 issue of Security Today.