Authentication may just be the “sine qua non” of the Internet of Things.
Let’s just come out and say it: Not using the most robust security to protect your digital ID, passwords, secret keys and other important items is a really, really bad idea. That is particularly true with the coming explosion of the Internet of Things (IoT).
The identity (i.e. “ID”) of an IoT node must be authenticated and trusted if the IoT is ever to become widely adopted. Simply stated, the IoT without authenticated ID is just not smart. This is what we mean when we say don’t be an ID-IoT.
It seems that every day new and increasingly dangerous viruses are infecting digital systems. Viruses — such as Heartbleed, Shellshock, Poodle, and Bad USB — have put innocent people at risk in 2014 and beyond. A perfect case in point is that Russian Cyber gangs (a.k.a. “CyberVor”) have exposed over a billion user passwords and IDs — so far. What’s scary is that the attacks are targeted at the very security mechanisms that are meant to provide protection.
If you think about it, that is somewhat analogous to how the HIV/AIDS virus attacks the very immune system that is supposed to protect the host organism. Because the digital protection mechanisms themselves have become targets, they must be hardened. This has become increasingly important now that the digital universe is going through its own Big Bang with the explosion of the IoT. This trend of constant connectivity will result in billions of little sensing and communicating processors being distributed over the earth, like dust. According to Gartner, processing, communicating and sensing semiconductors (which comprise the IoT) will grow at a rate of over 36% in 2015, dwarfing the overall semiconductor market growth of 5.7%. Big Bang. Big growth. Big opportunity.
The IoT will multiply the number of points for infection that hackers can attack by many orders of magnitude. It is not hard to see that trust in the data communicated via an ubiquitous (and nosey) IoT will be necessary for it to be widely adopted. Without trust, the IoT will fail to launch. It’s as simple as that. In fact, the recognized inventor of the Internet, Vint Cerf, completely agrees saying that the Internet of Things requires strong authentication. In other words, no security? No IoT for you!
There is much more to the story behind why the IoT needs strong security. Because the world has become hyper-connected, financial and other sensitive transactions have become almost exclusively electronic. For example, physical checks don’t need to be collected and cancelled any more — just a scanned electronic picture does the job. Indeed, the September 11th terror attacks on the U.S. that froze air travel and the delivery of paper checks accelerated the move to using images to clear checks to keep the economy moving.
Money now is simply electronic data, so everyone and every company are at risk of financial losses stemming directly from data breaches. See? Data banks are where the money is now kept, so data is what criminals attack. While breaches are, in fact, being publicized, there has not been much open talk about their leading to significant corporate financial liability. That liability, however, is real and growing. CEOs should not be the least bit surprised when they start to be challenged by significant shareholder and class action lawsuits stemming from security breaches.
Although inadvertent, companies are exposing identities and sensitive financial information of millions of customers, and unfortunately, may not be taking all the necessary measures to ensure the security and safety of their products, data, and systems. Both exposure of personal data and risk of product cloning can translate to financial damages. Damages translate to legal action.
The logic of tort and securities lawyers is that if proven methods to secure against hacking and cloning already exist, then it is the fiduciary duty of the leaders of corporations (i.e. the C-suite occupants) to embrace such protection mechanisms (like hardware-based key storage), and more importantly, not doing so could possibly be argued as being negligent. Agree or not, that line of argumentation is viable, logical, and likely.
A few CEOs have already started to equip their systems and products with strong hardware-based security devices… but they are doing it quietly and not telling their competitors. This also gives them a competitive edge, besides protecting against litigation.
Software, Hardware, and Hackers
Why is it that hackers are able to penetrate systems and steal passwords, digital IDs, intellectual property, financial data, and other secrets? It’s because until now, only software has been used to protect software from hackers. Hackers love software. It is where they live.
The problem is that rogue software can see into system memory, so it is not a great place to store important things such as passwords, digital IDs, security keys, and other valuable things. The bottom line is that all software is vulnerable because software has bugs despite the best efforts of developers to eliminate them. So, what about storing important things in hardware?
Hardware is better, but standard integrated circuits can be physically probed to read what is on the circuit. Also, power analysis can quickly extract secrets from hardware. Fortunately, there is something that can be done.
Several generations of hardware key storage devices have already been deployed to protect keys with physical barriers and cryptographic countermeasures that ward off even the most aggressive attacks. Once keys are securely locked away in protected hardware, attackers cannot see them and they cannot attack what they cannot see. Secure hardware key storage devices — most notably Atmel CryptoAuthentication — employ both cryptographic algorithms and a tamper-hardened hardware boundary to keep attackers from getting at the cryptographic keys and other sensitive data.
The basic idea behind such protection is that cryptographic security depends on how securely the cryptographic keys are stored. But, of course it is of no use if the keys are simply locked away. There needs to be a mechanism to use the keys without exposing them — that is the other part of the CryptoAuthentication equation, namely crypto engines that run cryptographic processes and algorithms. A simple way to access the secret key without exposing it is by using challenges (usually random numbers), secret keys, and cryptographic algorithms to create unique and irreversible signatures that provide security without anyone being able to see the protected secret key.
Crypto engines make running complex mathematical functions easy while at the same time keeping secret keys secret inside robust, protected hardware. The hardware key storage + crypto engine combination is the formula to keeping secrets, while being easy-to-use, available, ultra-secure, tiny, and inexpensive.
While the engineering that goes into hardware-based security is sophisticated, Atmel does all the crypto engineering so there is no need to become a crypto expert. Get started by entering for your chance to take home a free CryptoAuthentication development tool.