As organizations fear the proliferations of connected devices on enterprise networks, the private and public sector come together to address IoT vulnerabilities.

The Internet of Things is bringing every aspect of our lives online. Phones, watches, printers, thermostats, lightbulbs, cameras, and refrigerators are only a handful of devices connecting to home and enterprise networks. This web of products is seemingly intended to make everyday tasks more convenient; unfortunately, their weak security gives attackers an easy route in.

“[The IoT] is still a computer on a network, but it’s different,” says Joseph Carson, chief security scientist with Thycotic. Unlike traditional PCs, the functionality for IoT devices is very specific; further, they’re designed to be inexpensive and simple to deploy. As more employees bring devices into the workplace and connect them to Wi-Fi, the challenge to protect them escalates.

Enterprise devices not historically connected to the Internet are now part of the IoT, complicating the issue, adds Deral Heiland, IoT research lead at Rapid7. He points to multi-functional printers, which he says have long been a corporate security risk. Modern printers can control myriad functions, send data over the Internet, or print remotely via the cloud.

“One of the big things I run into at a lot of organizations is, ‘What really is the IoT?'” he says. “Things that weren’t on the IoT a decade ago, which have always been in the environment, have morphed into IoT technology.” As a result, many businesses don’t understand the full breadth of devices putting them at risk.

Routers, printers, and IP cameras are among the most prominently discussed devices in corporate IoT security. Cybercriminals are studying the IoT attack surface, figuring out what works and doesn’t work, and how they can profit from vulnerabilities in connected devices. A recent Trend Micro report sheds light on how attackers profit from the IoT: many sell access to hacked IoT devices built into botnets; others extort owners of connected industrial equipment.

In particular, security experts point to the Mirai botnet as a turning point for connected device security. Mirai and its variants “seem to be the big one these days,” says Jon Clay, Trend Micro’s director of global threat communications. The botnet has “stifled creativity” in the underground for this type of malware: it’s open-source and free, so attackers don’t have to work very hard.

“The attack surface is growing incrementally,” he says. “There are so many new devices coming online.” Criminals are narrowing their focus on IoT, evolving from ransomware or point-of-sale malware to specifically targeting connected devices.

Compounding the danger of IoT threats is the rise of nation-state attackers, who are targeting firmware at scale or leveraging connected devices in DDoS attacks. They don’t have to attack a major entity in order to have far-reaching effects, either: as NotPetya demonstrated, a nation-state actor could target one single component supplier to have devastating consequences.

Organizations’ attitude toward IoT security is similar to their approach to smartphones several years back, Heiland says. Now, they’re in the early stages of how they’ll improve their business model and put together processes to stay secure. At the same time, standards and regulations are emerging to inform manufacturers how to build security into these devices from the start.

Where Businesses and Manufacturers Fall Short

A combination of poor device security and higher interest among attackers is driving businesses to pay more attention to the IoT. “The attack surface they’re responsible for has grown so immensely,” says Mike Janke, CEO of DataTribe, where a group of advisory CISOs uses the term “shadow IoT” to refer to the smartwatches, headphones, and tablets appearing on networks.

“That’s a big pain because [the CISOs] are ultimately responsible,” he continues, noting most don’t have the budget, people, or resources to combat the problem. “It’s very frustrating.”

Many companies continue to struggle with patch management efforts, adds Clay, which adds to the challenge as IoT device manufacturers typically require users to apply updates. “A lot of these devices aren’t traditional PCs,” he explains. “Even though they have operating systems and applications inside, they aren’t treated like a server or a PC is in an organization.”

Carson advises organizations to consider the function of IoT devices before permitting them on a corporate network. Is it a data collector or aggregator? Can the rest of the network be accessed through the device? Does it introduce new threats? Who owns the device; can they view or download data? He suggests personal devices be required to access a guest network.

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Kelly Sheridan is the Staff Editor at Dark Reading, where she focuses on cybersecurity news and analysis. She is a business technology journalist who previously reported for InformationWeek, where she covered Microsoft, and Insurance & Technology, where she covered financial … View Full Bio

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