Proposed New UK Law To Cover IoT Security

The UK government’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), has announced that it will soon be preparing new legislation to enforce new standards that will protect users of IoT devices from known hacking and spying risks.

IoT Household Gadgets

This commitment to legislate leads on from last year’s proposal by then Digital Minister Margot James and follows a seven-month consultation with GCHQ's National Cyber Security Centre, and with stakeholders including manufacturers, retailers, and academics. 

The proposed new legislation will improve digital protection for users of a growing number of smart household devices (devices with an Internet connection) that are broadly grouped together as the ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT).  These gadgets, of which there is an estimated 14 billion+ worldwide (Gartner), include kitchen appliances and gadgets, connected TVs, smart speakers, home security cameras, baby monitors and more.

In business settings, IoT devices can include elevators, doors, or whole heating and fire safety systems in office buildings.

What Are The Risks?

The risks are that the Internet connection in IoT devices can, if adequate security measures are not in place, provide a way in for hackers to steal personal data, spy on users in their own homes, or remotely take control of devices in order to misuse them.

Default Passwords and Link To Major Utilities

The main security issue of many of these devices is that they have pre-set, default unchangeable passwords, and once these passwords have been discovered by cyber-criminals, the IoT devices are wide open to being tampered with and misused.

Also, IoT devices are deployed in many systems that link to and are supplied by major utilities e.g. smart meters in homes. This means that a large-scale attack on these IoT systems could affect the economy.

Examples

Real-life examples of the kind of IoT hacking that the new legislation will seek to prevent include:

- Hackers talking to a young girl in her bedroom via a ‘Ring’ home security camera (Mississippi, December 2019).  In the same month, a Florida family were subjected to vocal, racial abuse in their own home and subjected to a loud alarm blast after a hacker took over their ‘Ring’ security system without permission.

- In May 2018, A US woman reported that a private home conversation had been recorded by her Amazon's voice assistant, and then sent it to a random phone contact who happened to be her husband's employee.

- Back in 2017, researchers discovered that a sex toy with an in-built camera could also be hacked.

- In October 2016, the ‘Mirai’ attack used thousands of household IoT devices as a botnet to launch an online distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack (on the DNS service ‘Dyn’) with global consequences.

New Legislation

The proposed new legislation will be intended to put pressure on manufacturers to ensure that:

- All internet-enabled devices have a unique password and not a default one.

- There is a public point of contact for the reporting of any vulnerabilities in IoT products.

- The minimum length of time that a device will receive security updates is clearly stated.

Challenges

Even though legislation could make manufacturers try harder to make IoT devices more secure, technical experts and commentators have pointed out that there are many challenges to making internet-enabled/smart devices secure because:

  • Adding security to household internet-enabled ‘commodity’ items costs money. This would have to be passed on to the customer in higher prices, but this would mean that the price would not be competitive. Therefore, it may be that security is being sacrificed to keep costs down - sell now and worry about security later.
  • Even if there is a security problem in a device, the firmware (the device’s software) is not always easy to update. There are also costs involved in doing so which manufacturers of lower-end devices may not be willing to incur.
  • With devices which are typically infrequent and long-lasting purchases e.g. white goods, we tend to keep them until they stop working, and we are unlikely to replace them because they have a security vulnerability that is not fully understood. As such, these devices are likely to remain available to be used by cyber-criminals for a long time.

Looking Ahead

Introducing legislation that only requires manufacturers to make relatively simple changes to make sure that smart devices come with unique passwords and are adequately labelled with safety and contact information sounds as though it shouldn’t be too costly or difficult.  The pressure of having to display a label, by law, that indicates how safe the item is, could provide that extra motivation for manufacturers to make the changes and could be very helpful for security-conscious consumers.

The motivation for manufacturers to make the changes to the IoT devices will be even greater if faced with the prospect of retailers eventually being barred from selling products that don’t have a label, as was originally planned for the proposed legislation.

The hope from cyber-security experts and commentators is that the proposed new legislation watered-down before it becomes law.