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The Internet of Things - A Cyber Security Risk Invasion

Posted: 29-May-2015 16:39:00
Author: Tony Sykes


Inventions, obsolescence, consumerism and the rapid progress of technology in particular are all features of life in the modern world. There are still however, in my opinion, only a handful of technological inventions that have gone on to shape the world for years to come and changedour lives forever. 

 The car, the aeroplane, the phone and the internet are my obvious top four. They all have two things in common. They all make the world smaller and they all took time to take off (no pun intended). The internet was developed from the sixties but those of you old enough to remember Clive James and his 'Sunday Night Clive' show in the mid-90s will remember that he used to refer to the “information superhighway” and I for one had no real concept of what he was talking about at the time. It was of course the internet. In 1993 only 150 UK Companies had a Pipex dial-up internet connection. Last year 38 million adults in Great Britain accessed the internet every day.


What is the next big thing?

The internet is a network enabling computers from around the world to communicate. The most commonly known format is the World Wide Web (WWW) but many people forget that email and virtually all communications use the internet as well.

For our computers to connect to the internet we use a router and a firewall (often in the same product) because we don’t want the world visiting our personal lives which are, increasingly, stored in our computers. Most people are now aware of the need for security at this basic level.

Consumerism and technology have brought us fantastic products for the home and for business. Intelligent food processors, smart TVs, space-aged car dashboards, 3D games and so on. Estimates for the number of microprocessors in the average home are varied and unsubstantiated but somewhere between 50 and 200 seems to be the popular guess.

Some of these are already connected to the internet – the TV, the mobile phone, the laptop (of course). But what happens when more “things” are connected to the internet?


IoT is Here - Now

Unbeknown to many people, the Internet of Things (“IoT”) is here now. Variously attributed to people and institutions in the late 90’s, the concept of everything in your home and business having an internet connection is not only possible due to new IP numbering but it is here and happening.

Speaking with the CIO of a large South African company last week, he confirmed to me that they were installing IoT on their plant and equipment at a rate of 5,000 nodes per month. Why? Because the data that is received back enables them to service, locate and optimise the revenue from their capital plant. “Brilliant!” I hear you say. “What is the down-side?".


The Threats

There are two commonly quoted scaremongering scenarios: uncontrolled web cams and the intelligent fridge. The dangers of unprotected webcams that are freely accessible to highwaymen on the internet are relatively obvious and potentially will lead to invasions of privacy, possible blackmail opportunities and opportunist burglaries for example. Bad situations but isolated incidents however widespread.

A cyber-attack on a fridge manufacturer poses a theoretically much more sinister risk. Imagine a world-wide recognised brand of fridges connected to millions of product around the world via the IoT. A cyber-criminal hacks the IoT access and simply instructs several million fridges to switch off. Several million insurance claims later and the insurance market is in disarray. Reputational damage possibly puts the manufacturer out of business. Of course refrigeration is not limited just to domestic food. Hospitals, research centres, distribution and retail all use refrigeration and while one can assume to some degree the protection designed and maintained in commercial IoT devices would be higher, we all remember high-profile hacks in recent times including the Pentagon, Sony and eBay. The difference in all these cyber-attacks is that only data was stolen. Stolen data of course leads to ransom demands, theft of identity, bank and credit card credentials and reputational attacks. The ability to switch fridges off or to turn ovens, kettles, and other devices on could potentially wreak havoc on a massive scale and may ultimately literally result in death and destruction.



The Internet of Things will affect all of us. According to many experts, Cyber-attacks will increase significantly before appropriate security is established. As always, while successful prosecutions may be brought in individual cases, these are much more likely to be against the security or service provider than against the Cyber-Criminal.

The Internet of Things needs security by design; for this reason it is a business opportunity both for IT companies and security firms. When one or the other fails to deliver, Cyber-Crime will flourish and the legal sector will need to step in.

So, is the Internet of Things my number five all-time life-changing inventions? I think so. But it is different from the previous four: it is taking time to take off but it is making the world bigger – not smaller.

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