June 20, 2018, 8:47 pm
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DAVID HOLMES ON THINGBOTS: The attacker infrastructure of the future

CYBERSPACE has attack surface that evolves as technology evolves. 

In 2016, massive Distributed Denial of Service (DDos) attacks were reported to be so brutalbecause the attackers found a new weapon, the Internet of Things (IoT). As early as July that year security experts from F5 Networks were predicting a massive attack. Sure enough in September of that year, the Mirai launched 3 of the largestDDoS attacks in history at Krebs,OVH and DynDNS. To understand why this assault is so overwhelming, it achieved a world record, hitting targets at 1.2 terabytes per second (Tbps) using compromised IoT devices—closed circuit, networked cameras.

IoT devices are not only available to the DDoS business because of its sheer number, they are also easily accessible, as they don’t require additional technology. A lot of these IoTs devices are cameras that do not even have security protocols thus saving attackers additional expenses. They require no social engineering attacks, email infection campaigns, exploit kits or fresh zero-days. 

Now the infrastructure has evolved even further with the development of “thingbots.”

I had a chance to learn more about thingbots from F5 Networks security evangelist David Holmes who was accompanied by Oscar Visaya, Country Manager for the Philippines.

In David’s first sit down with me, we chatted at length about “The Hunt for IoT devices” a well-written research that predicted the building of the disruptive MiraiI described earlier. Mirai’s disruption was well publicized, and the computer outages it caused were plenty. But even during then David was already telling me that more aggressive scanning activity was in the horizon.

Scanning is a way by which hacks and cybercriminals check on vulnerable computers and devices. Conversely, cybersecurity forces use the scanning activity to find out where the possible threat origins and actors come from.

IoT feeds into the Internet data, providing a gateway into systems and networks. 

It is common for these devices to have poor security standards such that their remote administration ports are publicly accessible and susceptible to brute force and dictionary attacks, the ports are “protected” with vendor default passwords, and they don’t have an anti-virus solution in place to prevent malware infections. 

Case in point was a particular Chinese made closed-circuit camera brandthat had1250 models vulnerable. An attacker can bypass authentication by providing an empty username and an empty password to gain access. This attack gained a surface of close to 600k cameras by June 2017.

Mirai malware and subsequent attacks using IoT compromises rose by a staggering 280 percent within just six months from January to June 2017, translating into increased uncertainty for enterprises and creating a breeding ground for attacks.

It is this breeding ground for attacks that worries Holmes and Visaya. 

And as they start profiling the attacker infrastructure of the future, they tell me just how bad things can get as IoT devices evolve into thingbots.

A thingbot—is a botnet that gathers independent connected objects or devices, or maybe a series of connected IoT devices that can be repurposed for an attack. They can betrained to do anything from surveillance to DDoS attacks.

The results of the Mirai attack are powerful but quiet thingbots like Persirai are doing the most damage. Persarai is a thingbot of cameras, over 600 thousand of these globally and growing.

But Holmes puts forward a most obvious attack landscape for Thingbots—connected cars and smart cities.  He completely agrees and warns on how the older smart cities will need some catching up to do versus smart cities just being constructed simply because anti-threat warriors have realized the problem.

And as Persiraimaybe setting the stage for future darknet infrastructure, I remind Holmes of the nearly 50 billion IoT devices by 2020. He suggested two possible solutions. 

“In my opinion every security thing that was built (since the start) was just band aids on giant wounds, band aids on band aids on band aids,” Holmes said when asked why the security problems seem to be the same but in different arenas and in different characters. These days the arena is IoT and botnets are the characters in the play. And as security updates, threats will continue to grow as hackers develop new ones based on disclosed vulnerabilities in IoT devices.

But there is a solution according to Holmes—Name Data Networking.

“Name data networking (NDN) tried to go back and fix everything. And it basically works like calling out to the network and the network assigning a cryptographically secure unique name or number for the device and the network will give the device the name and number and give it a key,” Holmes explains. 

“So from then on the device will need to sign on the network with the key it was provided, this solves many problems. You cannot join the network randomly for instance which is the easiest way to attack,” Holmes adds as he points out how large-scale projects could benefit from NDN.

“It is like the birth certificate of IoT devices,” Oscar Visaya, F5 Networks Country Manager for the Philippines. 

The second solution is legislation. 

Holmes referred to Internet of Things Cybersecurity Improvement Act of 2017, penned by Senators Mark Warner, Cory Gardner, Ron Wyden, and Steve Daines. In essence the law is aimed at addressing the market failure by establishing minimum security requirements for procurements of connected devices. This law can be adopted in the Philippines as part of the already rigorous Cybersecurity Law or drafted as a new law altogether.

What will the IoT Cybersecurity Improvement Act do to thwart thingbots?

It will hit it where it hurts most—at the vulnerability of IoT devices and will require simple yet effective solutions—devices must have no default credentials (so that infiltration cannot be built in), these must be able to patch (in order to update the firmware) and must have no known vulnerabilities (can be determined by testing and certification).

Cognizant of these growing future threats Holmes explains three activities that F5 Networks will utilize as part of the solutions it has that help secure the IoT space, especially in the arena of the connected car and the smart home or city.

The first involves Transport Layer Security (TLS) unwrapping and MQ Telemetry Transport (MQTT) load balancing for securing IoT data in transport. The processes first ensure that nothing is hidden in the delivery of data from IoT device to network, and second, in the case of the lightweight messaging protocol of MQTT, nothing is added.

The company has successfully implemented a Proof-of-Concept (POC) that involves the connected car and smart home. In these two implementations the use of an MQTT broker in the distribution of the needed information between the vehicle or smart home and the network. This assures no intrusions because of several levels of self-authentication. In the case of cars in particular MQTT brokers must process up to 1.3 million messages a second in order for it to respond in the “real time” setting.

F5 Networks has also set up a road map that includes CoAp or Constrained Application Protocol and a MQTT subscription routing to assure that both speed and safe delivery of data is done with no intrusion or disruption. CoApis a specialized Internet Application Protocol (IAp) for constrained devices.

With solutions like Big-IP that is an intelligent security framework that provides complete visibility allowing users to deploy and manage application services more easily. F5’s Big IP ensureconsistent services, a consolidated infrastructure, and cost reductions with a single management interface.

How much more will the threat landscape evolve?

“It will always try to catch up with the pace of technology,” Holmes replied. “But what I can guarantee you is, because we are watching it closely, it will not over come the paceof cybersecurity intelligence.”
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