RSA 2014: US Government Warns Smart Device Makers Over Security

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Device manufacturers face US government action if they do not improve on basic security efforts, according to the FTC

Manufacturers of the expanding plethora of personal electronics that have embedded software and processors, so-called smart devices, need to make some basic efforts to secure the software or face potential government scrutiny, a representative of the US’ Federal Trade Commission (FTC) said at the RSA Conference on 28 February.

A growing number of actions taken by the Federal Trade Commission underscore the agency’s aim to convince more electronics companies to consider the security of the devices they are selling to consumers. Internet-connected cameras, mobile phones, health-monitoring devices and smart appliances all pose privacy risks for consumers because their manufacturers are not taking security precautions, Laura Berger, an attorney with the FTC, told attendees during a session on the security of smart devices.

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Consumers at risk

“While considering the risks to consumer data is a great first step, companies need to also consider the effects of device functionality,” she said. “Just because we [the manufacturers] don’t have data that we are handling or collecting from consumers, does not mean that we are not putting consumers at risk.”

Smart devices are gaining an increasing amount of attention from the dark side of the security community. Security researchers have focused on finding vulnerabilities in the products, and because most consumer electronics companies do not have secure development programmes, finding security flaws in devices with embedded systems is quite simple, Trail of Bits chief executive Dan Guido told attendees.

“I think there will be a lot more research and disclosures coming out that target these devices in the future,” he said. “Unfortunately, it is exactly those types of disclosures that will get abused, so definitely pay attention to the kinds of issues that become public,” he said.

Vulnerability scans

The panellists agreed that most consumer device makers do not consider security in the design of their products. The Federal Trade Commission has begun to bring enforcement actions against companies that do not expend adequate efforts to secure their devices. On 4 September, for example, the FTC reached a settlement with TRENDnet over its SecurView cameras, which had a software flaw that allowed attackers to grab video from cameras over the Internet.

“Device manufacturers do not do some basic things like looking at vulnerability scans – there is really no cost in that,” said another panelist, Akshay Aggarwal, chief executive of Deja vu Security. “They really cannot say that they are taking reasonable precautions if they are not doing the basics.”

Companies should also allow users to turn off features that could pose serious security issues, Guido said. Companies that allow consumers to turn off, say, Internet connectivity or other features essentially provide a workaround for when vulnerabilities do crop up.

“It is a huge amount of attack surface that gets bundled into a binary, and if a person is not using that functionality, it is unnecessary,” he said.

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