It’s Not the Doorbell, It’s the Cloud

Your password in the cloud was weak, not the IoT device this time. But there are emerging IoT standards like DPP that can help do away with passwords.

You have to have been hiding under a rock over the last week not to have heard about scare stories about kids being tormented by perverts and others being violently extorted through various Ring products. Not exactly what you were expecting from your security product, was it?

With so many reports of IoT devices being vulnerable to attack, one might leap to the idea that the Ring device itself has been poorly designed, and thus broken into, but one would be wrong. That is because, like so many IoT devices, Ring products make use of the cloud to offer a service. Here’s how it all works.

How you access that home IoT device

When you establish an account, you are doing this not on the doorbell, but on a service somewhere on the Internet to which the doorbell connects. This is evident, because when you go to ring.com, you can log in with the account that you have previously established in the app.

Later during device setup, the doorbell is registered with the service, using the phone’s setup app. This is likely the only time the phone would directly communicate with the doorbell. All other communications flow through the service, as drawn above.

So how did someone else get to control your device? If you are not using two factor authentication, an attacker requires two pieces of information to control your device: your email address and your password. Your email address can easily have appeared in public if you have joined a public mailing list, or had made a comment on a poorly designed web site. An attacker may also be able to guess your password if you have used that same password on a service that has been compromised (hint: many have), or the password itself is obvious.

Some recent research has found that long or complex passwords aren’t good because people write them down or forget them. On the other hand, Ring will accept “12345678” as a password, and quite a number of other commonly used passwords that can be found on this list of stupid passwords. First piece of advice in this article: don’t use those passwords!

Ring also offers the option to register a cell phone with your account, so that when you log in, you will receive a code via SMS that you must enter to access your account. This two factor authentication (or 2FA) is stronger, and well worth the mild inconvenience, given that this is your house and its security we are talking about.

All of this is about securing your online account. The only reason that the EvilBadDoer can bother Little Johnny and take over your doorbell or security camera, at least in this moment, is that EvilBadDoer hacked your online service password to the service controls the device.

Could this marriage of IoT devices and online services be used to provide a stronger authentication? Possibly. Because a device communicates with the cloud once it’s set up, and because your phone communicates with the cloud after the doorbell is setup, it is possible for the device to provide the doorbell a token. However, for that to work, communications must be secured between the device and the doorbell during setup. Earlier this year, researchers found that this was not the case, the reason being that the doorbell was simply using unencrypted HTTP to share information about your wifi network. Bad Ring! No Ring biscuit!

Luckily, there are some onboarding standards that Ring and others could leverage to help improve matters. One is EasyConnect by the Wifi Alliance, otherwise known as Device Provisioning Protocol (DPP). Here’s how DPP works:

Wifi Easy Connect

With DPP, you can use an app to scan a QR code printed on a label that came with the device that contains the public key that was installed during the manufacturing process. The app then looks for the device and authenticates using that key. Look, Ma! No passwords. DPP was primarily intended to be used for Wifi connectivity, but there’s no reason that the same trust couldn’t be leveraged to do away with Ring passwords. This is something that Amazon and others should consider.

There are some remaining challenges. For instance, what happens if you lose your phone? Can you repeat the exercise, and if you do so, would you have to do so with all the Ring devices in your house? To me this is best handled with some sort of backup before one loses one’s phone.

The key point here is that IoT can actually help itself if we adopt stronger onboarding technologies, like EasyConnect. This will take some time to get right. As a customer, you might want to ask about EasyConnect to help ease password problems so that Little Johnny can sleep easier.

Thanksgiving and How We Got Here

Today I remember a different Guthrie song from a different Guthrie.

It has become a tradition for many to play Arlo Guthrie’s Alyce’s Restaurant on this day, but I have another song in mind.

Men at Lunch

Today, as Americans give thanks for all that we have, we are thanking those who helped us along the way. That includes native Americans, and those generations of Americans who opened their doors to immigrants from China, Japan, Poland, Russia, Italy, Ireland, Ukraine, the Viet Nam, India, El Salvador, and a great many other places. Almost nobody who lives in America can say that they are in some way native, and nobody can say that America hasn’t benefited from those to whom we opened our doors. I am the great-grandson of a woman who came here as a 14 year old girl, fleeing horrible conditions in Eastern Europe. Good people found her clean lodging and got her a basic education, such that she was one of the only ones in her family to have survived the Holocaust. Her story, my heritage, is far from unique, and it is the reason that the Statue of Liberty is not incongruous with the American Century.

It horrifies me that our government knew that it had no means to track the thousands of immigrant children who are in our care. I encourage my friends to give a thought to these children, and their welfare.

Throughout the 20th century, isolationist bigoted forces always needlessly feared immigrants, whether it was the numbers of Chinese who had completed the railways, or Japanese Americans who were imprisoned. Always there has been some fear of our brothers and sisters south of the border. Somehow, until recently, we always knew that our relationship to Central Americans was one that we all valued, both culturally and economically. That our laws didn’t take this into account has been a singularly unjust abuse of the our brothers and sisters. Even as I write this, President Trump wants to declare Mexican gangs terrorist organizations, not to keep us safe, but to instill more fear of immigrants.

Please accept YouTube cookies to play this video. By accepting you will be accessing content from YouTube, a service provided by an external third party.

YouTube privacy policy

If you accept this notice, your choice will be saved and the page will refresh.

I commemorate today not with a song by Arlo Guthrie but with one written by his father Woody in 1948. To borrow a statement from someone else, it is an absolute travesty that the song Deportee is still relevant today. While Guthrie wrote it, a great many people have sung it, including Arlo, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, and Bob Dylan. These people have served as the conscience of America.

And so as we are enjoying our feasts, let’s remember those we have cast out.

Should I have that IoT device on my home network?

Yesterday I wrote about my cousin’s smart oven, and the risks of having it networked. Does this mean that you should have no IoT devices in your house? If not, how should you decide which ones are worth connecting? Here are three questions you might want to ask.

Does connecting the device to your network offer you any perceptible value?

Sometimes the answer is going to clearly be “yes”. For example, if you are taking a vacation in the middle of the winter in some cold place, you might want to know that your home’s heater broke down before your pipes froze. Having a thermostat configured to alert you to this fact might prove very useful. On the other hand, if you are in a place where such a concern is unwarranted or you would have no reason to worry about such things, maybe that same device does not need connectivity.

Will the device function correctly without connectivity?

Don’t expect an Amazon Echo to function, for instance. There is a reason why a great many IoT manufacturers are requiring Internet connectivity for their devices: the more intelligence they can move into their servers, the less intelligence is needed in the device itself, making it cheaper to build. If you are going to have a function like this in your house, this is actually an environmentally friendly way to go. Fewer parts require fewer resources used to build and to later dispose. But if a device does function properly and fully without Internet connectivy, why plug it in?

Does that device need continuous Internet connectivity?

You are unlikely to connect and reconnect your television every time you want to watch a video, but maybe you only need that thermostat connected while you are on vacation, for instance, or maybe an appliance needs a firmware update via the Internet. Occasionally connecting a device may make sense. However, take care: if you only plug in devices while you are on vacation, someone may be able to notice that and choose that time to break into your home.

Some Internet routers have the ability to block devices at certain times. Typically this is used to limit children’s access. However, one can also use these filters for other purposes. The problem is that this is nearly as annoying as having to deconfigure devices themselves. I’ll discuss this more in the near future.

Think before you buy!

The risk to your home and your privacy is real. Realistically, however, you will have some IoT devices in your house. Think about what value you derive from them, and what can go wrong if they are attacked before you buy.

Would you want your cousin using a connected oven?

Recently my cousin installed a smart oven into her home. It is top of the line. She wrote on social media that it texted her to tell her that it needed to clean itself, which it did before her second cup of coffee. How cool is that?

I immediately feared for her safety. Here is a slightly edited version of what I wrote to her:

IoT is a nice convenience, but there are a few things you should know. First, I guarantee that there are vulnerabilities in the device, even if some have yet to discover them. This is true for *any* connected device. Those vulnerabilities may be exploited at some point. What will happen then?

First, it’s possible that attacker could simply disable the oven. They probably won’t do this unless they are able to communicate with you. But since the oven seems to be sending you messages, it’s possible that they will do this and ransom you to re-enable it. (If that happens, don’t pay.)

Whether or not you can control the oven from the app, don’t think for a moment that hackers won’t be able to gain that level of control. That presents a far more serious risk: a fire, especially if the hackers are able to detect that the cooking temp is supposed to be 350, and turn the thing up to broil or clean.

The other thing that will happen is that the oven will attack other Wifi-enabled devices in your house or elsewhere. If you have a Wifi-enabled thermostat, maybe it will attack that. Some of those devices have cameras and microphones. The attackers aren’t going to be nice about what information they collect. They’re out to make money or worse.

Will any of this happen? Yes – to many people. Am I being paranoid? Maybe a little. Appliance manufacturers may know how to make excellent oven mechanisms, refrigerator compressors, stove top elements, etc, but they generally know very little about Internet security and their risks. Even those who know a lot get it wrong all the time, simply because we’re human.

And so are you gaining any great convenience by having the Wifi turned on, apart from a 5:30am wake up call to let you know that it needs to clean itself? If yes, you have a trade off to make. If not, just disable its darn Wifi.

This is how I feel about technology and the ones I love. Presumably you have some of those. There are definitely times when IoT is necessary, and when convenience is probably worth the risk. But consumers really need to think about this long and hard, and we professionals need to provide them a decent decision framework. I’ll talk about that next.



Shining City Upon a Hill

9/11 has harmed our values. We need to return to them.

I have been struggling with 9/11 for a great many years.

While I lost a cousin, we were not close. I stand in support of my family who were devastated, and who I love, and with my country who was attacked, and who I love. I’m glad we went after OBL and the Taliban in response. But for me to claim that I was a victim of this attack seems a form of self-aggrandizing that is disrespectful to those people who really did suffer. I do not need to light a johrzeit candle for someone who died on that day, but to support those who do.

But I have suffered a loss.

The terrorists who do not deserve naming killed 2,977 people on that day. Another 6,000 were injured. That’s a lot of people to lose in one day to a hateful act. and it required a response. But those criminals cannot be held responsible for harming our ideals. Only we can do that. And so we have done.

A great many of my friends see the attack as victims in such a personal way that it has allowed them to justify acts in our name by our government, without any sense of proportion.

They say, “Never Forget!”

That phrase is holy to me. It means that we should remember the loss of
6 million Jews who died at the hands of a society who accepted hatred and bigotry as an excuse for genocide, and that we should understand the causes of the deaths of those people, and never ever allow it to happen again. To me, it is blasphemous to use the expression in any other context.

In this context, it has been used as an excuse to harm our ideals, the best modern expression of which were said some 30 years ago:

I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That’s how I saw it, and see it still.

Ronald Reagan, January 11, 1989

Since 2001, the wars in which we engaged have taken the lives of anywhere from 200,000 and 1 million people, and Afghanistan is not much better off than when we went in. But that is nothing to me compared to the mentality that we have taken on, in which we act out of fear, spite, and vengeance, and that we have lost our compassion for those beyond our borders. That so many are scared of the people who come here with nothing but the shirts on their backs shows just how far we have fallen from grace.

On September 13, 2001, I wrote that I saw my lot in life not to be a victim, but to support the victims, to keep calm and carry on. I wanted to do what I could to preserve the shining city on the hill. I still believe all of that, only now, sadly, the goal is restoration.

Most of us are not victims and we have to stop acting like victims. And we have to stop using a victimization mentality as an excuse for vengeful, uncharitable, and bullying behavior.

My hope is that as we approach the 20th anniversary of the attacks, we can begin as a society to reclaim our American ideals, so that we can once again be that Shining City On the Hill.