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Without a doubt, we’re at a tipping point when it comes to security and the Internet of Things (IoT)

IoT and the Network: A Health Check

Without a doubt, we're at a tipping point when it comes to security and the Internet of Things (IoT). Recently, security flaws have been exposed in consumer products, including children's toys, baby monitors, cars, and pacemakers. In late October 2016, Dyn®, an internet infrastructure vendor, suffered a malicious DDoS attack that was achieved by leveraging malware on IoT devices such as webcams and printers that were connected to the Dyn network.

No, IoT security concerns are not new. In fact, any device that's connected to a network represents an opportunity for malicious activity. But what is new is the exponential rate at which consumer-grade IoT devices are now being connected to corporate networks, and doing so (for the most part) without IT's knowledge. This trend is both astounding and alarming: if your end user is now empowered to bring in and deploy devices at their convenience, your IT department is left with an unprecedented security blind spot. How can you defend against something you don't know is a vulnerability?

BYOD 2.0
Right now, most of you are more than likely experiencing a flashback to the early days of Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) - when new devices were popping up on the network left and right faster than IT could regulate. For all intents and purposes, IoT can and should be considered BYOD 2.0. The frequency with which IoT devices are being connected to secured, corporate networks is accelerating dramatically, spurred on in large part by businesses' growing interest in leveraging data and insights collected from IoT devices, combined with vendors' efforts to significantly simplify the deployment process.

Whatever the reason, the proliferation of unprotected, largely unknown and unmonitored devices on the network poses several problems for the IT professionals tasked with managing networks and ensuring the organizational security.

The Challenges
First, there are cracks in the technology foundation upon which these little IoT devices are built. The devices themselves are inexpensive and the engineering that goes into them is more focused on a lightweight consumer experience as opposed to an enterprise use case that necessitates legitimate security. As a result, these devices re-introduce new vulnerabilities that can be leveraged against your organization, whether it's a new attack vector or an existing one that's increased in size.

Similarly, many consumer-grade devices aren't built to auto-update, and so the security patch process is lacking, creating yet another hole in your organization's security posture. In some cases, properly configured enterprise networks can identify unapproved devices being connected to the network (such as an employee attaching a home Wi-Fi router), shut down the port, and eradicate the potential security vulnerability. However, this type of network access control (NAC) usually requires a specialized security team to manage and is often seen only in large network environments. For the average network administrator, this means it is of premier importance that you have a fundamental understanding of and visibility into what's on your network - and what it's talking to - at all times.

It's also worth noting that just because your organization may own a device and consider it secure does not mean the external data repository is secure. Fundamentally, IoT boils down to a device inside your private network that is communicating some type of information out to a cloud-based service. When you don't recognize a connected device on your network and you're unsure where it's transmitting data, that's a problem.

Creating a Strategy and Staying Ahead
Gartner® estimates that there will be 21 billion endpoints in use by 2020. This is an anxiety-inducing number, and it may seem like the industry is moving too quickly for organizations to slow down and implement an effective IoT strategy.

Still, it's imperative that your organization does so, and sooner rather than later. Here are several best practices you can use to create an initial response to rampant IoT connections on your corporate network:

  • Create a vetting and management policy: Security oversight starts with policy. Developing a policy that lays out guidelines for IoT device integration and connection to your network will not only help streamline your management and oversight process today, but also in the future. Consider questions like, "Does my organization want to permit these types of devices on the corporate network?" If so, "What's the vetting process, and what management processes do they need to be compatible with?" "Are there any known vulnerabilities associated with the device and how are these vulnerabilities best remediated or mitigated?" The answers to these questions will form the foundation of all future security controls and processes.
    If you choose to allow devices to be added in the future, this policy will ideally also include guidelines around various network segments that should/should not be used to connect devices that may invite a security breach. For example, any devices that request connection to segments that include highly secured data or support highly critical business processes should be in accordance with the governance policy for each segment, or not allowed to connect. This security policy should include next steps that go beyond simply "unplugging" and that are written down and available for all IT employees to access. Security is and will always be about implementing and verifying policies.
  • Find your visibility baseline: Using a set of comprehensive network management and monitoring tools, you should work across the IT department to itemize everything currently connected to your wireless network and if it belongs or is potentially a threat. IT professionals should also look to leverage tools that provide a view into who and what is connected to your network, and when and where they are connected. These tools also offer administrators an overview of which ports are in-use and which are not, allowing you to keep unused ports closed against potential security threats and avoid covertly added devices.
    As part of this exercise, you should look to create a supplemental set of whitelists - lists of approved machines for your network that will help your team more easily and quickly identify when something out of the ordinary may have been added, as well as surface any existing unknown devices your team may need to vet and disconnect immediately.
  • Establish a "Who's Responsible?" list: It sounds like a no-brainer, but this is a critical element of an IoT management strategy. Having a go-to list of who specifically is responsible for any one device in the event there is a data breach will help speed time to resolution and reduce the risk of a substantial loss. Each owner should also be responsible for understanding their device's reported vulnerabilities and ensuring subsequent security patches are made on a regular basis.
  • Maintain awareness: The best way to stay ahead of the IoT explosion is to consume updates about everything. For network administrators, you should be monitoring for vulnerabilities and implementing patches at least once a week. For security administrators, you should be doing this multiple times a day. Your organization should also consider integrating regular audits to ensure all policy-mandated security controls and processes are operational as specified and directed. At the same time, your IT department should look to host some type of security seminar for end-users where you're able to review what is allowed to be connected to your corporate network and, more importantly, what's not allowed, in order to help ensure the safety of personal and enterprise data.

Final Thoughts
IoT is here to stay. If you're not already, you will soon be required to manage more and more network-connected devices, resulting in security issues and a monumental challenge in storing, managing, and analyzing mountains of data. The risk to your business will likely only increase the longer you work without a defined management strategy in place. Remember, with most IoT vendors more concerned about speed to market than security, the management burden falls to you as the IT professional to ensure both your organization and end-users' data is protected. Leveraging the best practices identified above can help you begin ensuring your organization is getting the most out of IoT without worrying (too much) about the potential risks.

More Stories By Kevin Sparenberg

With 20 years of network and IT systems engineering and support experience across multiple environments, Kevin Sparenberg currently serves as a product manager for the SolarWinds® Orion® Platform Online Demo. In this role, he is responsible for defining compelling stories that IT professionals face within the publicly accessible demos. He is a THWACK® MVP and in 2017, was awarded the title of VMware® vExpert 2017.

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