Staying Secure in the IoT Era

March 23, 2017
As connected devices link up to the ever-expanding IoT universe, the wide array of new products is sure to provide people with tremendous flexibility

As connected devices link up to the ever-expanding IoT universe, the wide array of new products is sure to provide people with tremendous flexibility to manage daily life. Ideally, the expanded convenience offered by these new products will save time, add to a collective sense of security, and improve overall well-being.

Yet there is a sinister side to IoT: the devices are prone to counterfeiting and hacking.

In 2016, semiconductor companies released new low-power system-on-chip (SOC) integrated circuits that support not only wireless protocols but also external sensing and communication technologies—all designed with the latest embedded systems. Examples include Marvell’s IAP220, a low-power application processor (AP) in the IoT-AP family; Bosch’s BMA455, which utilizes sensors in IoT and smart-home applications; and Texas Instruments’ CC1310, a wireless microcontroller that enables faster IoT design cycles. There are also development design kits, such as Intel’s Joule 570x, available to speed the design of a new generation of robots, drones, and IoT devices.

Unfortunately, as the technology has advanced, so has the skill and sophistication of hackers. Their methods include sophisticated software attacks, Trojan Horse malware, and complex physical-chip modifications. Maintaining physical device security is very important to prevent so-called “Shack Attacks”—so named because the hacks can be accomplished with low-cost commercially available equipment obtainable from stores like Radio Shack. A shack attack can utilize the self-testing capabilities of an IC to alter a chip’s functional state.

Also dangerous are much more sophisticated “Lab Attacks,” in which hackers gain access to laboratory equipment. A lab attack, for instance, can bridge IC chip traces by utilizing costly semiconductor design equipment, such as Focused Ion Beam (FIB) gear, to reroute data to input/output (I/O) or extraction pins, which then allows hackers to obtain security codes, proprietary information, or other sensitive data.

The proliferation of unsecured IoT-connected products enabled a massive Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attack on Oct. 21, 2016, taking down the likes of Netflix, Twitter, Spotify, and others in many U.S. locations for most of that Friday morning. The attacks were traced to DVRs and webcams connected to a malicious botnet.

Although no permanent damage occurred, the successful hacking highlights weaknesses in IoT device manufacturing and the tendency for the industry to address security issues after products are released to consumers. Compounding the problem is that IoT device security is dependent on consumers who do not always reset their default passwords or keep their products updated when it comes to security.

Chip companies are making strides to secure ICs against counterfeiting and hack attacks. For example, chip “fingerprinting” uses physical unclonable functions (PUFs) built into the chip hardware to uniquely identify a chip’s authenticity. PUFs are widely used in many chips being built today, and new reference designs—such as Maxim’s MAXREFDES143# for IoT security, built to protect an industrial sensing node by means of authentication and notification to a web server—is an example of more advanced security methods available to design engineers.

However, even this authentication technology can be susceptible to hacking. Take the example of radio-frequency identification (RFID) chips, initially designed to change security codes after each transaction, based on an authentication process to a remote server. RFID chips have now been discovered as susceptible to side channel attacks, in which hackers analyze patterns of memory access or fluctuations in power usage when a device is performing a security-code update. Hackers discovered that by repeatedly cycling off the chip power, they could expose the current security code before a new code was issued.

To counter this weakness, RFID chips have since been developed with onboard power supplies. This allows the chips to retain data and complete the security-code change process before loss of power. Still, the example shows that even secure technology like authentication can prove vulnerable in the hands of determined hackers.

With all the rapid advances in technology and threats, companies need to know how to best protect their products. My best advice includes:

* Always buy from an authorized distribution source.  

* Create designs using chips with the latest advances in security, and ensure that you have a good source of the newest part introductions available from original component manufacturers.  

* Ensure that physical device inventory is—and has been—secure, especially for core devices.  

* Make certain that you are up to date on semiconductor technology security news.

If you must buy components on the gray market:

* Create a list of trusted supplies with in-house test equipment. Buy from trusted suppliers only.

* Verify that independent distributors can track components back to their authorized distribution source.

* Report all counterfeit incidents and hacking attempts so that others can become aware of the situation and of any other current challenges.

Greg Wood is a Director in the Electronic Parts Business at IHS Markit

He can be reached at [email protected]

Blog posts by Greg Wood

To learn more about IHS Markit Electronic Parts Management solutions, visit us online.

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