It’s Not the Doorbell, It’s the Cloud

Your password in the cloud was weak, not the IoT device this time. But there are emerging IoT standards like DPP that can help do away with passwords.

You have to have been hiding under a rock over the last week not to have heard about scare stories about kids being tormented by perverts and others being violently extorted through various Ring products. Not exactly what you were expecting from your security product, was it?

With so many reports of IoT devices being vulnerable to attack, one might leap to the idea that the Ring device itself has been poorly designed, and thus broken into, but one would be wrong. That is because, like so many IoT devices, Ring products make use of the cloud to offer a service. Here’s how it all works.

How you access that home IoT device

When you establish an account, you are doing this not on the doorbell, but on a service somewhere on the Internet to which the doorbell connects. This is evident, because when you go to ring.com, you can log in with the account that you have previously established in the app.

Later during device setup, the doorbell is registered with the service, using the phone’s setup app. This is likely the only time the phone would directly communicate with the doorbell. All other communications flow through the service, as drawn above.

So how did someone else get to control your device? If you are not using two factor authentication, an attacker requires two pieces of information to control your device: your email address and your password. Your email address can easily have appeared in public if you have joined a public mailing list, or had made a comment on a poorly designed web site. An attacker may also be able to guess your password if you have used that same password on a service that has been compromised (hint: many have), or the password itself is obvious.

Some recent research has found that long or complex passwords aren’t good because people write them down or forget them. On the other hand, Ring will accept “12345678” as a password, and quite a number of other commonly used passwords that can be found on this list of stupid passwords. First piece of advice in this article: don’t use those passwords!

Ring also offers the option to register a cell phone with your account, so that when you log in, you will receive a code via SMS that you must enter to access your account. This two factor authentication (or 2FA) is stronger, and well worth the mild inconvenience, given that this is your house and its security we are talking about.

All of this is about securing your online account. The only reason that the EvilBadDoer can bother Little Johnny and take over your doorbell or security camera, at least in this moment, is that EvilBadDoer hacked your online service password to the service controls the device.

Could this marriage of IoT devices and online services be used to provide a stronger authentication? Possibly. Because a device communicates with the cloud once it’s set up, and because your phone communicates with the cloud after the doorbell is setup, it is possible for the device to provide the doorbell a token. However, for that to work, communications must be secured between the device and the doorbell during setup. Earlier this year, researchers found that this was not the case, the reason being that the doorbell was simply using unencrypted HTTP to share information about your wifi network. Bad Ring! No Ring biscuit!

Luckily, there are some onboarding standards that Ring and others could leverage to help improve matters. One is EasyConnect by the Wifi Alliance, otherwise known as Device Provisioning Protocol (DPP). Here’s how DPP works:

Wifi Easy Connect

With DPP, you can use an app to scan a QR code printed on a label that came with the device that contains the public key that was installed during the manufacturing process. The app then looks for the device and authenticates using that key. Look, Ma! No passwords. DPP was primarily intended to be used for Wifi connectivity, but there’s no reason that the same trust couldn’t be leveraged to do away with Ring passwords. This is something that Amazon and others should consider.

There are some remaining challenges. For instance, what happens if you lose your phone? Can you repeat the exercise, and if you do so, would you have to do so with all the Ring devices in your house? To me this is best handled with some sort of backup before one loses one’s phone.

The key point here is that IoT can actually help itself if we adopt stronger onboarding technologies, like EasyConnect. This will take some time to get right. As a customer, you might want to ask about EasyConnect to help ease password problems so that Little Johnny can sleep easier.

Should I have that IoT device on my home network?

Yesterday I wrote about my cousin’s smart oven, and the risks of having it networked. Does this mean that you should have no IoT devices in your house? If not, how should you decide which ones are worth connecting? Here are three questions you might want to ask.

Does connecting the device to your network offer you any perceptible value?

Sometimes the answer is going to clearly be “yes”. For example, if you are taking a vacation in the middle of the winter in some cold place, you might want to know that your home’s heater broke down before your pipes froze. Having a thermostat configured to alert you to this fact might prove very useful. On the other hand, if you are in a place where such a concern is unwarranted or you would have no reason to worry about such things, maybe that same device does not need connectivity.

Will the device function correctly without connectivity?

Don’t expect an Amazon Echo to function, for instance. There is a reason why a great many IoT manufacturers are requiring Internet connectivity for their devices: the more intelligence they can move into their servers, the less intelligence is needed in the device itself, making it cheaper to build. If you are going to have a function like this in your house, this is actually an environmentally friendly way to go. Fewer parts require fewer resources used to build and to later dispose. But if a device does function properly and fully without Internet connectivy, why plug it in?

Does that device need continuous Internet connectivity?

You are unlikely to connect and reconnect your television every time you want to watch a video, but maybe you only need that thermostat connected while you are on vacation, for instance, or maybe an appliance needs a firmware update via the Internet. Occasionally connecting a device may make sense. However, take care: if you only plug in devices while you are on vacation, someone may be able to notice that and choose that time to break into your home.

Some Internet routers have the ability to block devices at certain times. Typically this is used to limit children’s access. However, one can also use these filters for other purposes. The problem is that this is nearly as annoying as having to deconfigure devices themselves. I’ll discuss this more in the near future.

Think before you buy!

The risk to your home and your privacy is real. Realistically, however, you will have some IoT devices in your house. Think about what value you derive from them, and what can go wrong if they are attacked before you buy.

Would you want your cousin using a connected oven?

Recently my cousin installed a smart oven into her home. It is top of the line. She wrote on social media that it texted her to tell her that it needed to clean itself, which it did before her second cup of coffee. How cool is that?

I immediately feared for her safety. Here is a slightly edited version of what I wrote to her:

IoT is a nice convenience, but there are a few things you should know. First, I guarantee that there are vulnerabilities in the device, even if some have yet to discover them. This is true for *any* connected device. Those vulnerabilities may be exploited at some point. What will happen then?

First, it’s possible that attacker could simply disable the oven. They probably won’t do this unless they are able to communicate with you. But since the oven seems to be sending you messages, it’s possible that they will do this and ransom you to re-enable it. (If that happens, don’t pay.)

Whether or not you can control the oven from the app, don’t think for a moment that hackers won’t be able to gain that level of control. That presents a far more serious risk: a fire, especially if the hackers are able to detect that the cooking temp is supposed to be 350, and turn the thing up to broil or clean.

The other thing that will happen is that the oven will attack other Wifi-enabled devices in your house or elsewhere. If you have a Wifi-enabled thermostat, maybe it will attack that. Some of those devices have cameras and microphones. The attackers aren’t going to be nice about what information they collect. They’re out to make money or worse.

Will any of this happen? Yes – to many people. Am I being paranoid? Maybe a little. Appliance manufacturers may know how to make excellent oven mechanisms, refrigerator compressors, stove top elements, etc, but they generally know very little about Internet security and their risks. Even those who know a lot get it wrong all the time, simply because we’re human.

And so are you gaining any great convenience by having the Wifi turned on, apart from a 5:30am wake up call to let you know that it needs to clean itself? If yes, you have a trade off to make. If not, just disable its darn Wifi.

This is how I feel about technology and the ones I love. Presumably you have some of those. There are definitely times when IoT is necessary, and when convenience is probably worth the risk. But consumers really need to think about this long and hard, and we professionals need to provide them a decent decision framework. I’ll talk about that next.



Internet Balkanization is here already, Mr. Schmidt.


In the technical community we like to say that the Internet is a network of networks, and that each network is independently operated and controlled. That may be true in some technical sense, but it far from the pragmatic truth.

By ProjectManhattan – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39714913

Today’s New York Times contains an editorial that supports former Google CEO Eric Schmidt’s view that the Internet will balkanize into two – one centered around US/Western values and one around values of China, and indeed it goes farther, to state that there will be three large Internets, where Europe has its own center.

The fact is that this is the world in which we already live.  It is well known that China already has its own Internet, in which all applications can be spied by the government.  With the advent of the GDPR, those of us in Europe have been cut off from a number of non-European web sites because they refuse to comply with Europe’s privacy regulations.  For example, I cannot read the Los Angeles Times from Switzerland.  I get this lovely message:

Unfortunately, our website is currently unavailable in most European countries. We are engaged on the issue and committed to looking at options that support our full range of digital offerings to the EU market. We continue to identify technical compliance solutions that will provide all readers with our award-winning journalism.

And then there are other mini-Internets, such as that of Iran, in which they have attempted to establish their own borders, not only to preserve their culture, but also their security, at least in their view, thanks to such attacks as Stuxnet.

If China can make its own rules, and Europe can establish its own rules, and the U.S. has its own rules, and Iran has its own rules, can we really say that there is a single Internet today?  And how many more Internets will there be tomorrow?

The trend is troubling. 

We Internet geeks also like to highlight The Network Effect, in which the value of the network to each individual increases based on the number of network participants, an effect first observed with telephone networks.  There is a risk that it can operate in reverse: each time the network bifurcates, its value to each participant decreases because of the loss of the participants who are now on separate networks.

Ironically, the capabilities found in China’s network may be very appealing to other countries such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, just as shared values around the needs of law enforcement had previously meant that a single set of lawful intercept capabilities exists in most telecommunications equipment.  This latter example reflected shared societal values of the time.

If you believe that the Internet is a good thing on the whole, then a single Internet is therefore preferable to many bifurcated Internets.  But that value is, at least for the moment, losing to the divergent views that we see reflected in the isolationist policies of the United States, the unilateral policies of Europe, BREXIT, and of course China.  Unless and until the economic effects of the Reverse Network Effect are felt, there is no economic incentive for governments to change their direction.

But be careful.  A new consensus may be forming that some might not like: a number of countries seemingly led by Australia are seeking ways to gain access to personal devices such as iPhones for purposes of law enforcement, with or without strong technical protections.  Do you want to be on that Internet, and perhaps as  importantly, will you have a choice?   Perhaps there will eventually be one Internet, and we may not like it.

One thing is certain: I probably won’t be reading the LA Times any time soon.

My views do not necessarily represent those of my employer.


Are the Chinese infecting hardware? Someone is lying

Bloomberg has reported that a company, Supre Micro, Inc., has had their hardware hacked, maybe with the knowledge or encouragement of the Chinese government. Impacted customers reportedly include Apple Computer and Amazon, who may have had their data centers compromised.  Apple, Amazon, and Super Micro Inc have all issued strong denials.

The attack as described involves a tiny chip being surreptitiously inserted on the board of one of Super Micro Inc’s suppliers.  According to the report, the chip could insert code that would allow for malware to be installed.  We’ll come back to how to address that attack at a later date.

While this attack is at least feasible in theory, and while it is possible for vendors to keep a secret, and indeed it has enraged many people in the past that a bunch of vendors have kept secrets for quite a while, here we have a report where we have denials all around, and yet we have a somewhat detailed description of the attack.  There are only three possibilities:

  1. The reporters and their sources are accurate; in which case there is a MASSIVE conspiracy that includes Apple and Amazon, not to mention government officials.
  2. The reporters are wrong, and have been fed corroborated yet false information by government sources.
  3. The reporters are fabricating a story.

An existence proof – one board – would suffice to show that (1) is true.  Proving (2) would be quite difficult without recorded conversations of confidential sources.  (3) is also difficult to prove.

Let’s hope the reporters are fabricating the story, because the alternatives are far worse.  If the reporters are accurate, we either have vendors standing on their heads or government sources  feeding media a pack of lies.  Furthermore, although China has broken into the computers of adversaries in the past, it would be particularly bad for false accusations to circulate that could later be used to discredit or tarnish those that are true.

More to come.