Security Bloggers: Learn about Embedded Device Security

Mark Zeni


If you blog about web and cybersecurity, you need to stay current on the latest developments and threats. In this post we will talk about a very important security trend.

New research coming from North Carolina State University and the University of Texas demonstrates a new way to screen for malware in IoT devices – referred to as embedded systems in the research – with a high degree of accuracy. Put simply, the new method of detection looks for power fluctuations within the device to account for the larger power draw malware needs to function.

This research highlights the continued need for security in IoT devices. With these small embedded devices finding themselves into everything from city infrastructure to the lightbulbs in your home, it’s becoming more and more clear that strong security is a necessity in the world of embedded devices. When the deadbolt lock guarding the home on your door suddenly becomes a potential target for malicious malware, it’s suddenly very apparent why IoT security matters.

IoT devices go beyond just the smart home devices you may be familiar with. It’s becoming more and more common for governments and corporations to use embedded technology to control the sensors and mechanics connected to machinery, equipment, or even infrastructure. A pressure gauge attached to a dam, for example, could be connected to the internet and monitored remotely. If that sensor was compromised by a malicious individual then serious damage could be done to the dam or even the surrounding area. This can potentially make IoT devices a very vulnerable target for terrorists or other aggressive organizations.

Research continues to try and find new ways to secure embedded devices to ensure these potential nightmare scenarios are avoided, but it’s a constant race between the hackers attempting to compromise them and the security professionals attempting to thwart them.

Providing an avenue for malware detection in embedded devices is an important first step

Researchers have recently made a breakthrough in embedded device security. Malware in these devices can be particularly difficult to isolate and identify, since the way other devices interact with them is often specific and limited.

The detection method focuses primarily on monitoring the power consumption of the device itself. When fluctuations in power are found, like the ones caused by the introduction of new code execution on a device, malware can be identified.

There are some pieces of malware that could pick up on this and modify their power consumption to attempt to evade detection. Researchers say that even in this scenario, the detection method provides an advantage, in that the malware has to function at a slower rate in order to evade detection. This effectively reduces the ability for the malware to function.

We need to approach embedded device security the same way we do computers

Take your average consumer computer. It’s connected to a modem and a router that likely have their own basic hardware firewalls. It probably has a software firewall too, provided via the device’s operating system. That’s going to be pretty universal regardless of the end-user. Some individuals may even have some kind of internet security or anti-virus software installed as an extra layer of protection. Particularly security-conscious individuals may go several steps further and create access control lists and additional firewall rules to help protect again malicious intrusion into their system.

We go through all these steps to protect a device that, for many, is merely an entertainment device. Yet many users are perfectly comfortable installing a smart light bulb with little security – if it has any security features at all.

Creating strong embedded device security starts by looking at embedded devices as vulnerable computers that could be open to tampering. By providing the same security layers to our embedded devices that we place on our computers, we can start protecting consumers and organizations from harm. This should include a basic firewall, authentication, and encryption, at the bare minimum. Starting to incorporate IoT devices into organizational security plans and even starting to include them in asset tracking and service desk platforms, like the SysAid service desk, would be another huge step forward for device security.

What makes embedded devices particularly vulnerable?

As a somewhat new and emerging technology, embedded devices have already faced a number of challenges when it comes to security. One of the major hurdles that the industry has recently started to overcome is the idea that embedded devices aren’t attractive targets for malicious hackers. The assumption that nobody would be interested in hacking into a smart device connected to the internet is clearly incorrect, and companies have already started removing this as a reason for skipping security in the device design.

Going hand-in-hand with the above, until recently the idea of designing embedded devices from the ground up to include security-conscious choices was basically unheard of. With the shift in the above philosophies, devices can start being more secure moving forward.

Another factor contributing to the vulnerability of these devices is the nature in which they are produced. Unlike traditional computer software, which could have a variety of different operating systems and applications, each embedded device in a particular product line is very likely to be identical. This means that if a vulnerability is present in one device in a given model run, it’s going to be present in every other device that was produced to those specifications. This can mean a single minor vulnerability opens thousands of devices up to hacking.

Embedded devices being used in critical city, government, or corporate infrastructure provides another strong contributor to the vulnerability of these devices. Devices that control these important utilities are far more likely to have a focused attack targeting them.

Embedded devices will continue to need strong security

As an emerging technology, its important that we continue to monitor the security of embedded devices moving forward. These interconnected devices will continue to be priority targets for malicious individuals and organizations, and it’s critical that the security community continue to give their protection a high priority moving forward into the future.

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