Understanding IoT Security: Challenges, Standards & Best Practices

Hadas Spektor
Hadas Spektor

10  min read | min read | 21/02/2024

What Is IoT Security? 

IoT security encompasses the practices and technologies used to safeguard Internet of Things (IoT) devices and networks from threats. The IoT is a vast network of physical devices—from smart household appliances to connected vehicles and industrial machines—that connect to the Internet. These devices collect and share data, creating new ways to enhance human life and digitize industrial processes (a trend known as Industry 4.0).

IoT security is concerned with protecting these devices, the networks they form, and the business processes they support, from cyber threats and breaches. As the number of IoT devices continues to grow, so does the need for IoT security. With more devices connected to the internet, and their increasing importance in personal and business life, there are more potential entry points for cyber attackers. 

Traditional cybersecurity tools and strategies may be inadequate to protect the sprawling web of interconnected devices that characterizes the IoT. A major challenge is protecting IoT devices themselves, which often lack basic security measures and are incompatible with existing security tools. In addition, IoT security must protect the networks to which these devices connect, as well as the backend systems that process and store data from these devices.

This is part of an extensive series of guides about data security.


Why Are IoT Security and Monitoring Important? 

IoT devices, due to their connectivity, have the potential to serve as gateways for cyber attackers to infiltrate networks and access sensitive data. Without proper security measures in place, these devices can be exploited, leading to significant data breaches and subsequent financial and reputational damages. Monitoring is another crucial aspect that provides organizations visibility over the security posture of their IoT fleet.

The functionality of IoT devices can be impaired or completely disrupted if they are compromised by cyber threats. To take a few examples, compromised IoT devices have been used to launch malicious activities like distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks against victims. Smart home devices could be hacked and used to spy on or physically endanger their users. Connected medical devices are especially at risk—if compromised, they could interrupt medical treatment or even inflict bodily harm on patients.

IoT security and monitoring are also essential to compliance with data privacy regulations. As IoT devices often handle sensitive personal and business data, businesses need to ensure that they are complying with all relevant data protection laws and cybersecurity standards. Failure to do so can result in fines and penalties, not to mention the loss of customer trust and potential business.


Types of IoT Security 

Let’s look at the main aspects of security for IoT systems.

Network Security

Network security in the context of IoT involves protecting the network that IoT devices connect to. This includes securing the communication channels between devices and the network, as well as between individual devices. Network security measures may involve implementing firewalls, intrusion detection systems, and encryption protocols.

Network security also involves monitoring network traffic to identify and respond to suspicious activities. This could involve the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies to detect anomalies that may indicate a potential security threat. Once a threat is detected, the appropriate response can be initiated to mitigate the impact of the attack.

Embedded Security

Embedded security relates to the security measures implemented within the IoT device itself. This includes the hardware and software components of the device. Embedded security measures may involve implementing secure booting mechanisms, hardware-based authentication methods, and tamper detection technologies. Some IoT security solutions, like Sternum, can be embedded directly within an IoT device to protect it from cyber threats.

Additionally, embedded security involves securing the data stored on the device. This could involve encrypting data at rest and implementing secure data deletion methods. It also involves securing the interfaces and APIs that the device uses to communicate with the network and other devices.

Firmware Assessment

Firmware, the low-level software that controls the hardware of IoT devices, can be a target for cyber attackers. If compromised, an attacker could gain control of the device and potentially the entire network.

Firmware assessment involves analyzing the firmware for potential vulnerabilities that could be exploited by attackers. This could involve static and dynamic analysis techniques, as well as fuzz testing to identify potential weaknesses.

Once vulnerabilities are identified, they need to be addressed promptly. This could involve patching the firmware or implementing additional security measures to mitigate the risk. Regular firmware updates are also critical to maintaining the security of IoT devices.


IoT Security Concerns and Challenges 

Let’s look at some of the challenges associated with maintaining IoT security.

1. Weak Authentication and Authorization

Many IoT devices come with default usernames and passwords that are often easy for attackers to guess. Some devices do not support complex passwords or multi-factor authentication, making them easy targets for attackers.

Weak authorization mechanisms can also pose a security risk. If an attacker gains access to a device, they may be able to perform unauthorized actions or access sensitive data.

2. Memory and Processing Power Limitations

IoT devices often have limited memory and processing power. This can make it challenging to implement robust security measures, as these often require significant computational resources. These limitations can also make it difficult to perform regular updates and patches, which are critical to maintaining the security of the device.

Despite these challenges, there are ways to enhance the security of IoT devices with limited resources. This could involve using lightweight encryption algorithms, employing secure coding practices, and leveraging dedicated on-device security solutions.

3. Insecure Communications Protocols and Channels

If the data transmitted between devices and the network is not properly secured, it can be intercepted and manipulated by attackers. This could lead to data breaches, device malfunction, or even network-wide attacks. IoT devices commonly use proprietary communication protocols, many of them are insecure, making them susceptible to man in the middle (MitM) attacks.

To address this, it’s crucial to implement secure communication protocols, such as TLS or IPSec. Additionally, data should be encrypted both in transit and at rest to protect it from interception.

4. Difficulty in Patching and Updating Devices

The diverse range of IoT devices, and the lack of standardization, can make it difficult to keep devices up-to-date. Some devices may not support updates at all, while others may require complex procedures to apply patches.

For devices that do allow updates, regular patching is crucial to address known vulnerabilities and enhance security. For devices that don’t, organizations should compensate with other security measures or isolate the devices from the network.


Examples of IoT Security Breaches 

Over the years, numerous high-profile IoT security breaches have raised concerns about the safety and privacy implications of these interconnected devices

Mirai Botnet Attack

One of the most notorious IoT security breaches is the Mirai botnet attack in 2016. This attack leveraged a network of compromised IoT devices, including digital cameras and DVR players, to launch a massive Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attack on Dyn, a major DNS provider. The attack led to widespread internet disruption, affecting many popular websites like Twitter, Netflix, and Reddit.

The Verkada Hack

In a more recent example, the Verkada hack in 2021 exposed the vulnerabilities of IoT security in the corporate world. Hackers gained access to the live feeds of 150,000 surveillance cameras managed by Verkada, a Silicon Valley-based startup. The compromised cameras were installed in various locations, including hospitals, companies, police departments, and even schools, raising serious privacy concerns.

Attack on South Staffordshire PLC

Another notable breach occurred in 2020 when South Staffordshire PLC, a UK-based water supplier, was targeted by cybercriminals. The attackers exploited vulnerabilities in the company’s IoT devices to gain unauthorized access to its system. Fortunately, the breach was detected early, and no major disruptions were reported.

Akuvox Smart Intercom Attack

Cybersecurity researchers discovered that Akuvox’s Smart Intercom system, which is commonly used in residential and commercial buildings, could be easily hacked to access door control, video feeds, and personal data. Akuvox immediately issued a firmware patch, but intercom systems that have not deployed it could still be vulnerable.


How Are IoT Security Threats Evolving? 

The landscape of IoT device vulnerabilities is complex and constantly evolving. According to a recent report, there were 400% more IoT attacks in 2023 compared to 2022, and much of the growth is attributed to attacks targeted at the manufacturing sector. 

Another report shows growing exploitation of legacy IoT devices, which lack basic security measures. The total number of IoT devices involved in DDoS and other cyber attacks rose from 200,000 to 1 million in the same period. The report also notes increased diversity of attack types, including service disruption, data theft, and ransomware​​.


Key IoT Security Frameworks and Standards 

Fortunately, there are several frameworks and industry standards that can help you ensure the security of IoT devices and systems.

NIST Framework for Improving Critical Infrastructure Cybersecurity

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has developed a cybersecurity framework that outlines guidelines and best practices to manage cybersecurity risks related to critical infrastructure. The framework can be adapted to various sectors and organizations, regardless of their size or cybersecurity risk profile. 

The NIST framework is composed of five core functions, which provide a high-level, strategic view of an organization’s management of cybersecurity risks:

  • Identify: This function assists in understanding the cybersecurity risks to systems, assets, data, and capabilities. 
  • Protect: Focuses on safeguards to ensure delivery of critical infrastructure services.
  • Detect: Emphasizes the need to identify cybersecurity events timely. 
  • Respond: This function stresses the importance of taking action regarding a detected cybersecurity incident. 
  • Recover: Aims to maintain plans for resilience and to restore any impaired capabilities due to a cybersecurity incident.

IoT Security Foundation Compliance Framework

The IoT Security Foundation (IoTSF) has developed a comprehensive compliance framework that addresses IoT security in a holistic manner. This framework is designed to help organizations manage the complexities and challenges associated with IoT security.

The IoTSF Compliance Framework is organized into four main sections, which outline specific security considerations that should be addressed to ensure the robustness of IoT systems:

  • Process: This section focuses on the overall governance and processes that should be in place to manage IoT security effectively. 
  • Software: Covers the specific software considerations that are crucial for maintaining the security and integrity of IoT systems. 
  • Physical: Covers the physical aspects of IoT devices, including hardware design considerations.
  • Communication: Outlines the security considerations for communication between IoT devices and systems.

IoT Security Foundation Best Practice Guidelines

Besides its compliance framework, the IoTSF has also established a set of best practice guidelines. These guidelines provide practical advice on how to secure IoT systems throughout their lifecycle, from the initial design and development stages to the deployment and maintenance phases.

The IoTSF Best Practice Guidelines cover various aspects of IoT security, including secure development, secure deployment, data privacy, and the management of security incidents. Each section provides clear and concise recommendations, which can be easily followed by IoT professionals and organizations.

Industrial Internet Consortium (IIC) IoT Security Framework

The Industrial Internet Consortium (IIC), a global, member-supported organization, has formulated an IoT security framework that provides a comprehensive approach to securing industrial IoT systems across various industries and applications.

The IIC IoT Security Framework targets four main areas: 

  • Risk Assessment: Focuses on identifying and assessing potential cybersecurity risks.
  • Architectural Considerations: Provide guidance on the secure design and deployment of IoT systems.
  • Implementation: Details specific strategies for implementing security controls.
  • Evaluation: Emphasizes the importance of continuously evaluating and improving the security posture of IoT systems.

GSMA IoT Security Guidelines

The GSMA, a trade body representing the interests of mobile network operators worldwide, has developed a set of IoT security guidelines. These guidelines aim to promote a methodical and consistent approach to IoT security, targeting all participants in the IoT ecosystem, including device manufacturers, service providers, and developers.

The GSMA IoT Security Guidelines are divided into several documents, each addressing a specific area of IoT security. These areas include secure IoT product development, secure IoT product lifecycle management, and the secure deployment of IoT services.

Each document provides practical advice and best practices on how to address the unique security challenges associated with IoT.


Best Practices for Managing IoT Device Security 

Let’s look at some of the ways you can improve the security of an IoT system.

Track and Manage Your Devices

Keep an inventory of all your IoT devices, their configurations, and their current statuses. Understanding the interconnectivity of these devices is also crucial. IoT devices are designed to communicate with each other, and each link in this communication chain is a potential security risk. Therefore, it is essential to have a clear map of your IoT network and understand how your devices interact.

Managing your IoT devices also involves regular updates and patches. Manufacturers often release software updates that address vulnerabilities in their devices. However, these patches are only effective if they are implemented. Regularly checking for and applying these updates is a critical part of IoT device management.

Use Up-to-Date Encryption Protocols

Encrypting data is a fundamental aspect of IoT security, ensuring that even if data is intercepted, it remains unreadable without the proper decryption key. It’s crucial to use up-to-date encryption protocols for data at rest (stored data) and data in transit (data moving between devices and servers). 

If possible, use Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) for encrypting data in IoT devices, because it provides a balance of security and performance. Additionally, ensure the use of strong, unique keys and regularly update them to prevent unauthorized access.

Conduct Penetration Testing

Regular penetration testing is vital to uncover potential vulnerabilities in your IoT ecosystem that could be exploited by attackers. This involves simulating cyber attacks on your systems to identify weaknesses in devices, networks, and applications. 

Findings from these tests should be documented and addressed promptly. It’s also recommended to conduct these tests after any significant change in the network or when new types of IoT devices are deployed, to ensure continuous security.

Segment Your Network

Network segmentation involves dividing your network into smaller, separate segments or subnetworks. This practice can significantly enhance IoT security by containing potential breaches within a single segment, preventing them from spreading throughout the entire network. 

Ensure that IoT devices are on a separate network segment from critical business systems. Use firewalls and network access control lists to enforce traffic rules between segments. Regularly review and update segmentation rules to adapt to new threats or changes in the network topology. Consider isolating devices with known vulnerabilities, and limited ability to apply patches or other security measures, from the rest of the network.

Invest in Observability

Observability in IoT security involves having a comprehensive view of your IoT infrastructure, enabling real-time monitoring and analysis of security events. This includes logging and analyzing data from devices, networks, and applications. Investing in a robust observability platform can help in early detection of suspicious activities and potential breaches. 

Tools that can collect live data from IoT devices and offer real-time alerts, dashboards, and advanced analytics are essential for a proactive security stance. Ensure that your observability tools are scalable and can handle the vast amount of data generated by IoT devices.

Deploy Runtime Security Measures

Runtime security refers to the protective measures that are in place while IoT devices and applications are running. This includes the use of behavior analytics tools to detect anomalies in device behavior that may indicate a compromise. 

Deploy a runtime security tool that can be integrated into IoT devices to detect and block threats in real-time. Furthermore, ensure that devices can securely communicate with control servers to receive timely instructions for mitigating detected threats.


How Can we Help: Deterministic IoT Security with Sternum

Sternum is an IoT security and observability platform, which lets you meet and exceed the security requirements of IoT product security certifications, as well as standards and regulations such as UL 2900, TIR 57, and the FDA Cybersecurity Guidance.

Embedded in the device itself, Sternum provides deterministic protection from known and unknown (zero-day) threats, including software supply chain vulnerabilities. These patented security features are complemented by robust observability features that granularly monitor and log all device functions, provide real-time operational and business intelligence, and leverage AI for rapid anomaly detection and alerting.

Sternum operates at the bytecode level, making it universally compatible with any IoT device or operating system, including RTOS, Linux, OpenWrtZephyr, Micirum, and FreeRTOS. Plus, it has a low overhead of only 1-3%, even on legacy devices.

To learn more about how we help MDMs streamline IoT security and and build scalable and reliable products, check out this customer webinar we did with Medtronic:

Learn more about Sternum for IoT security

Related content: Read our guide about IoT security challenges

See Additional Guides on Key Data Security Topics

Together with our content partners, we have authored in-depth guides on several other topics that can also be useful as you explore the world of data security.

Incident Response

Authored by Cynet

Ransomware Protection

Authored by Cynet

Object Storage

Authored by Cloudian


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