Why IoT Hacking Can Be Like Ocean's 11

IoT security is not a game you are going to win. But if you don’t play that game, you also lose. The way forward is to think like a hacker, says visionary cybersecurity expert and innovator Pablos Holman, who is keynoting the IoT Emerge event in Chicago.

Brian Buntz

August 12, 2016

5 Min Read

If you build it, they will come.

There is a lesson to be learned from that line from Field of Dreams and the history of the Internet itself. If you create software and put it online, it could attract hackers eventually. The Internet of Things expands this principle, potentially giving hackers tens of billions of new targets.

But that shouldn’t deter companies from implementing IoT technologies, says noted hacker Pablos Holman (pictured below), who is speaking at IoT Emerge, scheduled for November 2-4 in Chicago. Because the potential business benefits of the IoT are substantial, taking a “sit and wait” approach to the technology can be fatal in this competitive marketplace. Instead, companies should map out a strategy that weighs the risks involved in being either too slow or quick in reaching the marketplace, Holman says. And instead of being fearful of hackers, they should study how they work. Cyberattacks are often as predictable as the plots of bank heist films. It turns out that there are only so many ways to launch a cyberattack, just as there are only so many ways to rob a bank.


Hacking Hackers

Businesses should come to view security as a game—one that often follows a limited number of scripts. Learning a hacker’s mindset—how to break into things as well as how to break them—can help you build better products and help you avoid being a victim.

While mainstream media tends to focus on the potential of destructive security breaches, few hackers would be interested in orchestrating such attacks. Most hackers are risk averse and would prefer to avoid doing anything that would expose their position. “Most sophisticated hackers are just going to hide and watch everything you do and learn as much as they can,” Holman says. “They are going to look for something you could use as a competitive advantage, or to know when to short your stock or something like that. They do not want to get caught.”

Hackers also tend to favor easier targets rather than go after specific individuals or companies—just as sharks look for weak prey. To illustrate this principle, Holman says that merely taking a Windows 98 computer and plugging it into the Internet will attract an attack. “It is going to get owned in 23 seconds by automated hacking robots that just look for these things. Hackers don’t care what is on that machine, but it is so easy to take over, it has become systematized,” he said. “They then can use use it to launch harder and more sophisticated attacks against Windows 9 machines that are on the same network.”

Hackers can use the same modus operandi with IoT devices. “You plug in a webcam—which is a good example of an early IoT device. It is going to get automatically owned by a robot,” Holman says. “And they then have something in their local network that they control and can start using that as a platform to start attacking other systems. They don’t even care what the video is showing.”

Putting Out Bait for Hackers

Holman recommends coming up with an active defense plan to thwart hackers. One example of that is the use of honeypots—fake targets that are easy to break into—to monitor when hackers try to break into your IoT network. “As soon as I see somebody get into it, I know it is an attacker, and then I can watch him,” Holman says. “Or I can put up a few fake security cameras with poor security and see what happens there. It’s bait.”

In the security camera example, you could assume that a fairly sophisticated hacker would want to overwrite its history and replace it with fake video footage. You could then monitor for anyone trying to do that. “This is what defense is about now,” Holman says. “Security guys know how to think through the threat model and what the problems are going to be and craft defense that is appropriate. It is a war of escalation. You are never going to be done.”

Why Watching Bank Heist Films Can Help You Understand Security

Hackers are relentless. But most cyberattacks follow scripts that are as predictable as Hollywood movies, Holman says. Even Stuxnet—a super-virus developed by Israel and the United States to destroy Iran’s nuclear centrifuges around 2010—was predictable in its own way.  “In some way, Stuxnet sounds incredibly sophisticated. But in the end, it is the same thing as the Italian Job or Ocean’s 11,” Holman explains. “It is the same thing as the bank heist that you have seen every year for your whole life.”

Stuxnet worked by recording normal activity from a nuclear facility. During the attack phase, in which it systematically attacked nuclear centrifuges, it replayed the normal log activity, to give operators the impression that nothing was wrong. “This is basically the same as those old heist movies where they plug a VCR into the security camera feed, so the security guard is watching a loop of nothing going on during a bank robbery,” Holman says. “That is what Stuxnet did. It recorded when everything was fine and then played that back when, on the back end, it was destroying centrifuges.”

While Stuxnet may be a unique example, there are a limited number of scripts that hackers follow. “If you know the script, you can guess where people are going and what they are going to try,” Holman says. “You can figure out what you need to monitor for to determine if somebody is trying to get into your network before they do.”

That doesn’t mean you should be afraid. “Nothing scares me anymore. That is what you learn. At some point, when you see someone launching a cyberattack, you recognize that you have seen that script before,” Holman says. “You have to play the game, and that game is pretty well defined. And that it is possible to make sure that you are not the low hanging fruit.”

About the Author(s)

Brian Buntz

Brian is a veteran journalist with more than ten years’ experience covering an array of technologies including the Internet of Things, 3-D printing, and cybersecurity. Before coming to Penton and later Informa, he served as the editor-in-chief of UBM’s Qmed where he overhauled the brand’s news coverage and helped to grow the site’s traffic volume dramatically. He had previously held managing editor roles on the company’s medical device technology publications including European Medical Device Technology (EMDT) and Medical Device & Diagnostics Industry (MD+DI), and had served as editor-in-chief of Medical Product Manufacturing News (MPMN).

At UBM, Brian also worked closely with the company’s events group on speaker selection and direction and played an important role in cementing famed futurist Ray Kurzweil as a keynote speaker at the 2016 Medical Design & Manufacturing West event in Anaheim. An article of his was also prominently on kurzweilai.net, a website dedicated to Kurzweil’s ideas.

Multilingual, Brian has an M.A. degree in German from the University of Oklahoma.

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