Third-Party IoT Vulnerabilities: We Need a Cybersecurity Paradigm Shift

The discovery of the Ripple20 vulnerabilities, affecting hundreds of millions of Internet of Things (IoT) devices, is the latest reminder of the dangers that third-party bugs pose to connected devices.

Although the estimated 31 billion IoT devices in the world perform a vast array of crucial functions — powering lifesaving medical tools, facilitating efficient transportation, and transforming critical business processes — these devices are alarmingly vulnerable to attack. In large part, that’s because OEMs rely on third-party vendors — like the Ohio software company at the center of the Ripple20 firestorm — that sell code riddled with potential entry points for malicious hackers.

Nevertheless, a recent Ponemon Institute study found that six in 10 organizations do not monitor the cyber-risks of IoT devices developed by third parties, leaving thousands of businesses and institutions accountable for supplying vulnerable products and exposed to heavy financial losses and reputational damage.

The only entities equipped to safeguard IoT devices against these risks are the IoT device manufacturers themselves, given that end users typically lack adequate security mechanisms for protecting their connected devices. Because new cyber vulnerabilities will continuously pop up, there’s no magic bullet— but by assuming accountability and protecting each individual device, manufacturers can prevent attacks and secure IoT innovation.

Proliferating Vulnerabilities
Who’s most at risk from inadequate IoT cybersecurity? Just about everyone. Take the Ripple20 case, which centers around 19 bugs found in code sold by the software company Treck. The company’s code is found in devices used by everyone from mom and pop shopkeepers to Fortune 500 companies, as researchers at JSOF, who discovered the vulnerabilities, noted. Affected industries spanned the gamut, including medical, transportation, energy, retail, and more.

News of the Ripple20 bugs came on the heels of the revelation that 26 new vulnerabilities had been discovered in the Zephyr Real Time Operating System (RTOS), which powers IoT devices and is supported by vendors including Intel, Nordic, and Texas Instruments.

In another case, the US Food and Drug and Administration announced in March the discovery of 12 additional third-party vulnerabilities known as “SweynTooth” affecting IoT medical devices — underscoring that the risk posed by cybersecurity vulnerabilities could extend beyond property and reputation to life itself, with hackers potentially able to steal sensitive medical data or stop devices such as heart monitors from working.

The takeaway from these cases: vulnerabilities within IoT devices are proliferating. So how can manufacturers meet the scale of the threat?

New Pressure on OEMs
Fortunately, the latest revelations of IoT bugs haven’t caught policymakers unaware. Regulatory measures are shifting the burden of responsibility onto device manufacturers. Case in point: a new California law took effect in January requiring IoT OEMs to equip devices with cybersecurity features that are appropriate to the specific nature of the device itself and the information it collects and transmits, while preventing unauthorized access or manipulation. The law made California the second state, after Oregon, to adopt such a law.

Meanwhile, the UK Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport unveiled similar regulations earlier this year, requiring manufacturers to provide a public point of contact for reporting and responding to vulnerabilities and to explicitly state the minimum duration for device security updates.

Governments across the globe should join this regulatory effort, putting pressure on OEMs to act swiftly to safeguard the devices critical to both our lives and our livelihoods. The bottom line: No IoT device should be allowed on the market if proper security isn’t installed on the device itself.

A Paradigm Shift
The goal of IoT cybersecurity shouldn’t be eradicating all vulnerabilities; that would be setting manufacturers up for failure. Vulnerabilities will always exist — so what’s needed instead is a paradigm shift in how manufacturers think about securing connected devices.

Device manufacturers cannot rely on the security of third-party vendors. As gatekeepers, OEMs themselves must implement controls to protect their clients. Effective design protection should include not only protecting the manufacturer’s code, but also securing all third-party components. This is why secure-by-design, static analysis, and even hardware security don’t fully answer IoT protection needs, as IoT network security is only one piece of the puzzle and cannot protect distributed devices.

When manufacturers do ultimately discover vulnerabilities, they should patch them — but patching shouldn’t be the focal point of their cybersecurity strategy. Instead, OEMs should seek innovative solutions that focus on preventing attacks, regardless of vulnerabilities. New techniques in cybersecurity for IoT devices make this possible. OEMs can then spend less time and money looking for vulnerabilities as they will be better equipped to stop exploitation attempts and respond immediately to incidents.

In the IoT age, each individual device serves as a potential point of entry for attackers — which is why manufacturers should ensure that cyber protection is embedded onto each device. Such solutions will be critical as IoT on 5G networks is poised to drive $8 billion in revenue for operators by 2024.

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