We're at a crisis point now with regard to the security of embedded systems, where computing is embedded into the hardware itself -- as with the Internet of Things.
These embedded computers are riddled with vulnerabilities, and there's no good way Internet chips on which they earn patch them. Software and operating systems were riddled with security vulnerabilities, and there was no good way to patch them.
Companies were trying to keep vulnerabilities secret, and not releasing security updates quickly.
And when updates were released, it was hard -- if not impossible -- to get users to install them. This has changed over the past twenty years, due to a combination of full disclosure -- publishing vulnerabilities to force companies to issue patches quicker -- and automatic updates: automating the process of installing updates on users' computers.
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The results aren't perfect, but they're much better than ever before. But this time the problem is much worse, because the world is different: All of these devices are connected to the Internet.
The computers in our routers and modems are much more powerful than the PCs of the mids, and the Internet of Things will put computers into all sorts of consumer devices.
The industries producing these devices are even less capable of fixing the problem than the PC and software industries were. If we don't solve this soon, we're in for a security disaster as hackers figure out that it's easier to hack routers than computers. At a recent Def Con, a researcher looked at thirty home routers and broke into half of them -- including some of the most popular and common brands.
To understand the problem, you need to understand the embedded systems market. Typically, these systems are powered by specialized computer chips made by companies such as Broadcom, Qualcomm, and Marvell. These chips are cheap, and the profit margins slim.
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Aside from price, the way the manufacturers differentiate themselves from each other is by features and bandwidth. They typically put a version of the Linux operating system onto the chips, as well as a bunch of other open-source and proprietary components and drivers.
The system manufacturers -- usually original device manufacturers ODMs who often don't get their brand name on the finished product -- choose a chip based on price and features, and then build a router, server, or whatever. They don't do a lot of engineering, either.
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The brand-name company on the box may add a user interface and maybe some new features, make sure everything works, and they're done, too. The problem with this process is that no one entity has any incentive, expertise, or even ability to patch the software once it's shipped.
On both iOS and Android phones, any mapping app has the ability to track your location without needing an internet connection. This uses the locations of cell phone towers and known Wi-Fi networks to figure out roughly where you are.
The chip manufacturer is busy shipping the next version of the chip, and the ODM is busy upgrading its product to work with this next chip. Maintaining the older chips and products just isn't a priority. And the software is old, even when the device is new.
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For example, one survey of common home routers found that the software components were four to five years older than the device. The minimum age of the Linux operating system was four years. The minimum age of the Samba file system software: six years.
They may have had all the security patches applied, but most likely not. No one has that job. Advertisement To make matters worse, it's often impossible to patch the software or upgrade the components to the latest version. Often, the complete source code isn't available.
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Yes, they'll have the source code to Linux and any other open-source components. But many of the device drivers and other components are just "binary blobs" -- no source code at all. Even when a patch is possible, it's rarely applied. Users usually have to manually download and install relevant patches.
But since users never get alerted about security updates, and don't have the expertise to manually administer these Internet chips on which they earn, it doesn't happen. Sometimes the ISPs have the ability to remotely patch routers and modems, but this is also rare.
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The result is hundreds of millions of devices that have been sitting on the Internet, unpatched and insecure, for the last five to ten years. Hackers are starting to notice. Malware DNS Changer attacks home routers as well as computers. In Brazil, 4.
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Last month, Symantec reported on a Linux worm that targets routers, cameras, and other embedded devices.
This is only the beginning.
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All it will take is some easy-to-use hacker tools for the script kiddies to get into the game. And the Internet of Things will only make this problem worse, as the Internet -- as well as our homes and bodies -- becomes flooded with new embedded devices that will be equally poorly maintained and unpatchable. We were here before with personal computers, and we fixed the problem.