Why the IoT needs multi-layer security


When it comes to the Internet of Things, you’re only as a strong as your weakest link. 


The notion of security being only as strong as its weakest link is especially true for the Internet of Things. When it comes to connected devices, security must be strong at all layers, closing any possible open doors and windows that an attacker can crawl through. Otherwise, if they can’t get in on ther first floor, they will try another.

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Internet security has been built mainly upon Transport Layer Security, or TLS. TLS provides confidentiality, data integrity and authentication of the communication channel between an Internet user and a secure website. Once a secure communications channel is set up using a TLS method, for example, the other half of the true security equation is needed, namely applications layer security.

To understand this notion, think of logging into your bank account on the web. First, you go to the bank’s website, which will set up a secure channel using TLS. You know TLS is successful when you see the lock symbol and https (“S” for secure) in the browser. Then, you will be brought to a log-in page and prompted to enter your credentials, which is how the bank authenticates your identity, ensuring that you’re not some hacker trying to gain access into an unauthorized account. In this scenario, your password is literally a secret key and the bank has a stored copy of the password which it compares to what you entered. (You may recognize that this is literally symmetric authentication with a secret key, though the key length is very small.) Upon logging in, you are, in fact, operating at the application. This application, of course, being electronic banking.

So, as autonomous IoT nodes spread around the world like smart dust, how do those nodes ensure security? This can essentially be achieved using the same two steps:

  • Set up Transport Layer Security to secure the communications channel using TLS or another methodology to get confidentiality, data integrity and confidentiality in the channel. This channel can be either wired or wireless.
  • Set up Applications Layer Security to safeguard the information that will be sent through the communications channel by using cryptographic procedures. Among proven cryptographic procedures to do so are ECDSA for authentication, ECDH key agreement to create session keys, and encryption/decryption engines (such as AES that use the session keys) for encrypting and decrypting messages. These methods make sure that the data source in the node (e.g. a sensor) is authentic, the data is confidential and has not been tampered with in any degree (integrity).

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The reason that multi-layer security, particularly application layer security, is required is that attackers can get into systems at the edge nodes despite a secure channel. Long story short, TLS is not enough.

IoT nodes collect data, typically through some kind of sensor or acting on data via an actuator. A microcontroller controls the operation of the node and a chosen technology like Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and Zigbee provides the communications channel. The reason that application layer security needs to be added to the TLS is that, if an attacker can hack into the communications channel via any range of attacks (Heartbleed, BEAST, CRIME, TIME, BREACH, Lucky 13, RC4 biases, etc.), they can then intercept, read, replace and/or corrupt the sensor/actuator or other node information.

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Unfortunately in the real world, TLS gets breached, making it not sufficient. As a result, true security requires both Transport Layer and Applications Layer Security. Think of it as a secure pipeline with secure data flowing inside. The crypto element — which are an excellent way to establish the Applications Layer Security for the IoT — gets in between the sensor and the MCU to ensure that the data from the sensor has all three pillars of security applied to it: confidentiality, integrity, and authentication (also referred to as “CIA”). CIA at both the transport and application layers is what will make an IoT node entirely secure.

Fortunately, Atmel has an industry-leading portfolio of crypto, connectivity and controller devices that are architected to easily come together to form the foundation of a secure Internet of Things. The company’s wireless devices support a wide spectrum of standards including Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Bluetooth Low Energy and Personal Area Networks (802.15.4), not to mention feature hardware accelerated Transport Layer Security (TLS) and the strongest link security software available (WPA2 Enterprise).

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Crypto elements, including CryptoAuthentication and Trusted Platform Modules (TPM) with protected hardware-based key storage, make it easy to provide extremely robust security for IoT edge nodes, hubs, and other “things” without having to be a crypto expert. Built-in crypto engines perform ECDSA for asymmetric authentication and ECDH key agreement to provide session keys to MCUs, including ARM and AVR products that run encryption algorithms.

2 thoughts on “Why the IoT needs multi-layer security

  1. Pingback: Why the IoT needs multi-layer security - Internet of Things | Wearables | Smart Home | M2M

  2. Pingback: Report: 100% of tested smartwatches exhibit security flaws | Atmel | Bits & Pieces

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