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Just as the IoT holds out many business possibilities, it also brings up serious security concerns

PKI: The Little Engine That Could… Make IoT More Secure

The Internet of Things is here. In the coming years, billions of devices like sensors, meters or actuators will be connected to the network, sharing information and taking instructions. These connected devices will sense and deliver more data, respond to control inputs and provide more information to help people and machines make decisions. Examples of "things"' include IPTV cameras in major metropolitan areas, crop-growing water detection systems, smart meters that communicate energy consumption and smart transportation systems that adapt to traffic conditions. These are all computing systems that are Internet-connected and operate with no human intervention.

But just as the IoT holds out many business possibilities, it also brings up serious security concerns. A system to establish appropriate levels of trust between all these disparate "things" is needed. Rather than inventing something brand new, however, enterprises need only look into their own existing infrastructure to find the core supporting technology. Public key infrastructure (PKI) has been playing a quiet security role for two decades, issuing credentials used to perform strong authentication, validating the integrity of transactions, and securely exchanging keys used to ensure confidentiality of communications between systems and devices. For this reason and others, the security challenges presented by the IoT is causing a resurgence of interest in PKI.

Trust on a Massive Scale
The Internet of Things will require trust and control to reach its full potential. This is hard to achieve on the grand and diverse scale of IoT, but one thing is certain: cryptography - done properly - is going to play a central role in making it happen. Of course, crypto and PKI technologies are nothing new. Both have been proven in large-scale systems - such as the global payments network and the SSL/TLS fabric we use every day. However, securing the IoT brings some new challenges that are leading the industry to rethink traditional assumptions around key management and potential security threats.

Because IoT does not require human intervention, the data that systems receive must be reliable, as it will be used to make decisions: for example, which control valve to turn on or off, or when to shut off someone's electricity. These devices must provide trustworthy information, sometimes directly to the user and sometimes to the infrastructure provider (such as an energy utility), often employing data analytics that span millions of such devices. Users, service providers or even regulators need to be sure that they are talking to the correct device (authentication), that the device is functioning properly and has not been tampered with (integrity), is configured correctly (access control and policy setup) and that data is protected when at rest, in use or in motion (confidentiality).

It's a significant challenge to establish trust on a massive scale across a broad range of disparate devices. The devices can be physically located out on the front line in hostile environments, or may not have been built to do what is now being asked of them. The networks they communicate over can be untrusted and difficult to secure. Additionally, back-end systems and data repositories where information is aggregated and analyzed and decisions taken are also an attractive target. The threat of the homeowner cheating the electrical company is nothing new, but the sheer scale of IoT creates a set of threats on an unprecedented scale. Under the control of malicious insiders, hacktivists, thieves or terrorists, the IoT could quickly become the Internet of Listeners or the Army of Things.

PKI Rises to the IoT Challenge
The success of IoT will require secure communications, high-integrity messaging and mutual, strong authentication at an Internet scale. Having secured network-connected devices for decades, digital certificates issued by a PKI are well situated from a technology perspective to serve as an online identity for those things. PKI has performed well for years in trusted environments where hundreds of millions of device certificates have been deployed for ATMs, cellular base stations and smart phones. While the things in IoT have much in common with such devices, they do raise some new issues around assurance, scale and technology.

For instance, there's a distinction between public PKI applications and private or closed PKI applications in terms of assurance and validation. Common PKI applications, such as email security and even SSL, often require a level of public trust - the ability for anyone to validate the assurance claims made by the PKI based credentials, such as certificates. This requires the ability to equip all potential receivers to test the claims of all potential senders and even harder, to revoke the ability to make claims if trust is lost. In many ways the situation in IoT can be easier because some IoT deployments don't need "public" trust - they are closed systems. For instance, if a certificate in a vehicle is used only to communicate telemetry data back to the manufacturer, no other third party needs to rely on that certificate or the PKI that issued it. Furthermore, revocation checking and online validation may no longer be required since the organization in control may have other means to know the status of its own devices and won't need to rely on checking the status of credentials of the device.

In addition, scale is an issue. Analysts predict that the number of connected devices will be several orders of magnitude beyond anything experienced today. Although PKI deployments certainly exist that have the ability to manage millions of certificates, most operate at levels significantly smaller. The magnitude of many IoT deployments will make systems with tens or even hundreds of millions of credentials commonplace. The good news is that many of these devices' deployments will be relatively static, credentials will have relatively long lifecycles and changes might be rare - but in very large systems, even a relatively small change can be an operational nightmare.

Finally, unlike traditional PKIs and connected devices (ATMs, servers, even smartphones), the IoT will be populated by extremely low-power and low-budget devices - saving microwatts of power or cents to bill will be a big deal. Traditional cryptography is not designed for these environments. Cryptography is mathematically intensive, and that requires CPU power.

Another related problem is credential generation. Making good keys is not easy, and making them in high volumes - for example, on a production line - can quickly become a bottleneck. Again, the good news is that crypto algorithms designed for low power devices and rapid key generation already exist and have been widely proven. Generally falling into the category of elliptic curve cryptography (ECC), this technology is rapidly growing in terms of availability.

Making a More Secure IoT Possible
IoT has demolished conceptions of what is possible in connectivity around how we work, play and live. However, the industry must also challenge traditional assumptions around key management to face security threats suggested by the IoT. Like many innovations, adjustments must be made to accommodate the evolving threat landscape as well as the impending surge of connected-devices that will require certificates.

IoT finds a natural security partner in an expanded use of PKI. PKI has a proven track record of helping to bring resolution to high-assurance problems. As IoT proliferates, PKIs and their associated digital certificates stand ready to secure the growth of Internet-connected devices.

About John Grimm
John Grimm, senior director product marketing, Thales e-Security, has over 25 years of experience in the information security field, starting as a systems and firmware engineer building secure cryptographic key distribution systems for government applications, and progressing through product management, solution development, and marketing leadership roles.

He received his bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Worcester, Mass., and is a member of Tau Beta Pi, the engineering honor society.

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