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It's time to get serious about securing the internet of things

Not long ago, many IT leaders viewed IoT as little more than an interesting science project. Today, companies in every industry rely on IoT insights as part of their core business strategies. According to DigiCert’s recent “State of IoT Security Survey 2018” (registration required), 92% of companies expect IoT to be important to their business by 2020. In all, analysts project the global IoT market to more than double by 2021, reaching about $520 billion.

That’s a whole lot of new devices popping up on the world’s networks. And there’s one group that can’t wait to get their hands on them: cybercriminals. With nearly 10 billion IoT devices forecasted to come online by 2020, attackers see billions of new potential attack vectors. The fact that many connected devices still ship with inadequate security makes them even more attractive targets.

“Businesses are bringing insecure devices into their networks and then failing to update the software,” said Vik Patel in a recent conversation with Forbes. “Failing to apply security patches is not a new phenomenon, but insecure IoT devices with a connection to the open Internet are a disaster waiting to happen.”

For some companies, the disaster is already here. According to the DigiCert survey, among organizations struggling to master IoT security, 100% experienced a security mishap — IoT-based denial-of-service attacks, unauthorized devices access, data breaches, IoT-based malware — in the past two years. Those issues can carry a big price tag. A quarter of struggling organizations reported $34 million or more in incurred costs from IoT security mishaps.

Fortunately, the IoT security problem is far from intractable; there are mature, proven strategies that organizations can employ to secure connected devices. But the key is to take those steps before a vulnerability or breach is identified instead of trying to retrofit devices after the fact. The most successful organizations employ a security-by-design approach using public key infrastructure (PKI) and digital certificates. Using PKI to reinforce the security basics — authentication, encryption, data and system integrity — you can keep your IoT footprint ahead of the threat.

Why PKI?

Based on the same PKI standard that millions of websites rely on every day for secure connectivity, PKI provides an ideal framework for mutual trust and authentication in IoT. In addition to encrypting sensitive traffic, PKI verifies that IoT devices — and any users, devices or systems communicating with them — are who they claim to be. When all parties to IoT communications have a trusted digital certificate vouching for their legitimacy, it becomes much harder for malicious actors to, for example, hijack a device or inject malware into its firmware.

PKI is a perfect match for the exploding IoT sector, as it can provide trust and control at massive scales in a way that traditional authentication methods, like tokens and passwords, can’t. PKI provides:

  • Strong data protection: PKI can encrypt all data transmitted to and from IoT devices, so that even if a device is compromised, attackers can’t do anything with the data.
  • Minimal user interaction: With digital certificates, PKI authenticates users and devices behind the scenes, automatically — without the interruptions or user interaction required by passwords and token policies. Certificates also provide stronger identity by including information such as the device serial number.
  • Secure code: Using code signing certificates, companies can sign all code on the device firmware, assuring only trusted code can operate on the device. This protects against malware and supports secure over-the-air updates to the device.
  • Effortless scalability: Originally designed for huge networks and web services with vast numbers of users, PKI can easily scale to millions of IoT devices.

Companies typically choose from two options for deploying PKI: implementing and operating their own private PKI framework on-premises, or using hosted PKI services from a public certificate authority. Which approach is right for your organization? Let’s evaluate the four C’s.

The four C’s of PKI

Consideration #1: Control
How much control do you need over your certificate infrastructure? It often depends on your industry. In heavily regulated industries with complex, rigorous compliance requirements, many companies keep everything in-house. This does provide fine-grained control and comprehensive auditing capabilities. But it also requires significant time, money and expertise. Someone in the company must “own” the process of ensuring the framework adheres to industry standards, enforcing policies to establish trusted roles, managing key ceremonies and data storage policies, ensuring reliable certificate renewals and revocations, and much more. The resources required to do PKI in-house right — and the potential to do it wrong and cause significant damage — is often more than a company wants to take on.

This is not a small effort, and it’s not for amateurs. This is why many companies in less-regulated industries, and even many in regulated ones, prefer a hosted solution, letting a public certificate authorities handle all the complexity. If you need the control of an on-premises system but you don’t want the management headaches, some PKI providers offer hybrid models. These combine on-premises systems that can issue publicly trusted certificates through a secure gateway that communicates directly with a scalable cloud issuance platform.

Consideration #2: Cost
When you deploy and manage your own private PKI framework, you can build exactly the system you want. But don’t expect it to come cheap. Standing up an internal certificate authority entails initial hardware and software acquisition, and often extensive investments in training and personnel.

Beyond the initial implementation, expect to devote ongoing resources to maintaining the on-premises PKI framework: keeping up with audits, tracking evolving industry standards, updating hardware and software, as well as ensuring device integrity throughout the lifecycle. The total cost of ownership can be significant. This is why most companies that have the option choose hosted PKI offerings with more manageable, predictable economics.

Consideration #3: Crypto-agility
If your PKI is going to actually protect your IoT footprint — and your stakeholders’ or customers’ data — it needs to use up-to-date cryptography. That doesn’t happen automatically. Whoever owns the PKI framework needs to monitor and participate in standards groups to stay ahead of changing threats and implement continually evolving protocols. If you’re operating your own on-premises certificate authority, make sure you build that ongoing effort into your PKI budget.

Here again, companies across the board increasingly opt for cloud-hosted PKI. When standards shift or cryptographic properties change, a hosted PKI provider — whose core business entails investing in PKI staff and architecture — is ready for it. The leading public certificate authorities typically anticipate changes to curves, algorithms and hashes well before they are widely known or implemented. Getting ahead of quantum computing threats to today’s encryption algorithms looks to be the next frontier.

Consideration #4: Certificate Management
Managing the full lifecycle of certificates across a large volume of devices — even millions or billions of them — is not an easy task to run in-house. This requires a technology stack and strong policies and procedures to issue, install, renew and revoke certificates. Many vendors look to a trusted third party with automated offerings to discover and manage certificates, and especially one with a track record of having already provided certificate-based authentication for billions of connected devices.

Don’t put off IoT security

The days when you could launch an IoT initiative without a sound strategy to authenticate devices and ensure data and system integrity are over. IoT is very much on the radar of cybercriminals. And the costs of reactive, after-the-fact security can easily climb to tens of millions of dollars. On the flip side, those companies that do IoT security right can reap major benefits. Bain & Company found that enterprises would buy more IoT devices — and pay up to 22% more for them, on average — if they were more confident that they were secure.

Before launching any new IoT application, make sure you’re building standards-based PKI security and authentication into the basic design of your architecture. Whether you manage certificates yourself or work with a hosted certificate authority, you’ll sleep better knowing your IoT footprint can’t be easily compromised. And your business will be able to capitalize on the full power and potential of IoT.

All IoT Agenda network contributors are responsible for the content and accuracy of their posts. Opinions are of the writers and do not necessarily convey the thoughts of IoT Agenda.

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