What is the Internet of Things (IoT)? IoT is the ever-growing network of physical devices with embedded technologies that connect and exchange data over the internet. If the cloud is considered someone else’s computer, IoT devices can be considered the things you connect to the internet beyond a server or a PC/Laptop. These are items such as cameras, doorbells, light bulbs, routers, DVRs, wearables, wireless sensors, automated devices and just about anything else.
IoT devices are nothing new, but the attacks against them are. They are evolving at a rapid rate as growth in connected devices continues to rise and shows no sign of letting up. One of the reasons why IoT devices have become so popular in recent years is because of the evolution of cloud and data processing which provides manufacturers cheaper solutions to create even more ‘things’. Before this evolution, there weren’t many options for manufacturers to cost-effectively store and process data from devices in a cloud or data center. Older IoT devices would have to store and process data locally in some situations. Today, there are solutions for everyone and we continue to see more items that are always on and do not have to store or process data locally.
Cloud and Data Processing: Good or Bad?
This evolution in cloud and data processing has led to an expansion of IoT devices, but is this a good or a bad thing? Those that profit from this expansion would agree that this is positive because of the increase in computing devices that can assist, benefit or improve the user’s quality of life. But those in security would be quick to say that this rapid rise in connected devices has also increased the attack landscape as there is a lack of oversight and regulation of these devices. As users become more dependent on these IoT devices for daily actives, the risk also elevates. Not only are they relying more on certain devices, but they are also creating a much larger digital footprint that could expose personal or sensitive data.
In addition to the evolution of IoT devices, there has been an evolution in the way attacker’s think and operate. The evolution of network capabilities and large-scale data tools in the cloud has helped foster the expansion of the IoT revolution. The growth of cloud and always-on availability to process IoT data has been largely adopted among manufacturing facilities, power plants, energy companies, smart buildings and other automated technologies such as those found in the automotive industry. But this has increased the attack surfaces for those that have adopted and implemented an army of possible vulnerable or already exploitable devices. The attackers are beginning to notice the growing field of vulnerabilities that contain valuable data.
In a way, the evolution of IoT attacks continues to catch many off guard, particularly the explosive campaigns of IoT based attacks. For years, experts have warned about the pending problems of a connected future, with IoT botnets as a key indicator, but very little was done to prepare for it. Now, organizations are rushing to identify good traffic vs malicious traffic and are having trouble blocking these attacks since they are coming from legitimate sources.
As attackers evolve, organizations are still playing catch up. Soon after the world’s largest DDoS attack, and following the publication of the Mirai source code, began a large battle among criminal hackers for devices to infect. The more bots in your botnet, the larger the attack could be. From the construction of a botnet to the actual launch an attack, there are several warning signs of an attack or pending attack.
As the industry began monitoring and tracking IoT based botnets and threats, several non-DDoS based botnets began appearing. Criminals and operators suddenly shifted focus and began infecting IoT devices to mine for cryptocurrencies or to steal user data. Compared to ransomware and large-scale DoS campaigns that stem from thousands of infected devices, these are silent attacks.
In addition to the evolving problems, modern research lacks standardization that makes analyzing, detecting and reporting complicated. The industry is new, and the landscape keeps evolving at a rapid rate causing fatigue in some situations. For instance, sometimes researchers are siloed, and research is kept for internal use only which can be problematic for the researcher who wants to warn of the vulnerability or advise on how to stop an attack. Reporting is also scattered between tweets, white papers, and conference presentations. To reiterate how young this specialty is, my favorite and one of the most respected conferences dedicated to botnets, BotConf, has only met 6 times.
EOL is also going to become a problem when devices are still functional but not supported or updated. Today there are a large number of connected systems found in homes, cities and medical devices that at some point will no longer be supported by the manufacturers yet will still be functional. As these devices linger unprotected on the internet, they will provide criminal hackers’ a point of entry into unsecured networks. Once these devices pass EOL and are found online by criminals, they could become very dangerous for users depending on their function.
In a more recent case, Radware’s Threat Research Center identified criminals that were targeting DLink DSL routers in Brazil back in June. These criminals were found to be using outdated exploits from 2015. The criminals were able to leverage these exploits against vulnerable and unpatched routers 4 years later. The malicious actors attempted to modify the DNS server settings in the routers of Brazilian residents, redirecting their DNS request through a malicious DNS server operated by the hackers. This effectively allowed the criminals to conduct what’s called a man in the middle attack, allowing the hackers to redirect users to phishing domains for local banks so they could harvest credentials from unsuspecting users.
Attackers are not only utilizing old and unpatched vulnerabilities, but they are also exploiting recent disclosures. Back in May, vpnMentor published details about two critical vulnerabilities impacting millions of GPON gateways. The two vulnerabilities allowed the attackers to bypass authentication and execute code remotely on the targeted devices. The more notable event from this campaign was the speed at which malicious actors incorporated these vulnerabilities. Today, actors are actively exploiting vulnerabilities within 48 hours of the disclosure.
What Does the Future Hold?
The attack surface has grown to include systems using multiple technologies and communication protocols in embedded devices. This growth has also led to attackers targeting devices for a number of different reasons as the expansion continues. At first hackers, mainly DDoS’er would target IoT devices such as routers over desktops, laptops, and servers because they are always on, but as devices have become more connected and integrated into everyone’s life, attackers have begun exploring their vulnerabilities for other malicious activity such as click fraud and crypto mining. It’s only going to get worse as authors and operators continue to look towards the evolution of IoT devices and the connected future.
If anything is an indication of things to come I would say it would be found in the shift from Ransomware to crypto mining. IoT devices will be the main target for the foreseeable future and attackers will be looking for quieter ways to profit from your vulnerabilities. We as an industry need to come together and put pressure on manufacturers to produce secure devices and prove how the firmware and timely updates will be maintained. We also need to ensure users are not only aware of the present threat that IoT devices present but also what the future impact of these devices will be as they approach end of life. Acceptance, knowledge, and readiness will help us keep the networks of tomorrow secured today.
Download “When the Bots Come Marching In, a Closer Look at Evolving Threats from Botnets, Web Scraping & IoT Zombies” to learn more.
Daniel Smith is an information security researcher for Radware’s Emergency Response Team. He focuses on security research and risk analysis for network and application based vulnerabilities. Daniel’s research focuses in on Denial-of-Service attacks and includes analysis of malware and botnets. As a white-hat hacker, his expertise in tools and techniques helps Radware develop signatures and mitigation attacks proactively for its customers.