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Blog — Mar 14, 2018

Digital privacy: know your devices

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Implementing strong privacy standards and being aware of privacy risks associated with image sharing and social media use is an important for maintaining your digital privacy, but what if the physical devices you own jeopardise your privacy? The use of internet connected devices implies a level of trust; the manufacturer has to have security and privacy in mind for the lifecycle of the device or the user is put at risk. The issue of trust has been highly publicised since top US intelligence agencies have publicly recommended against the use of Kaspersky products [1] and Huawei phones [2].

The goal of this blog post is to dig into the issue of trust surrounding internet connected devices. There are two main categories discussed below: the first is devices that are purposefully designed to steal information and the second is companies that improperly store or release data. Recent examples of security failures in both of these categories illustrate the importance of knowing the devices you trust.

Devices Designed to Breach Privacy

Although relatively rare, there have been various instances in the last few years in which internet connected devices were designed with the express purpose of stealing information from unwitting owners. On August 9th 2017, the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) released a public intelligence bulletin stating that Da Jiang Innovations (DJI), a drone maker for consumer and professional use, was sending information gathered by drones to the Chinese government [3].

According to ICE, the applications required to use the DJI drones captured GPS imagery and locations, registered facial recognition, accessed users' phone data and captured user identification, e-mail addresses, full names, phone numbers, images, videos, and computer credentials. All of this information was then stored in cloud service systems which were likely accessible by the Chinese Government. The seriousness of this allegation is not only due to a breach of privacy but also because DJI drones were being actively used for critical infrastructure projects.

In a similar case of privacy invasion, MantisTek was found to have a keylogger embedded in their popular G2K mechanical keyboard. The keylogger captured the number of times each key was pressed and stored the information on Alibaba Group’s cloud infrastructure [4]. Although the information kept was only keystrokes, with enough time and resources, a dedicated threat actor could extract private usernames and passwords.

In these two instances, devices were insecure immediately from time they were activated. No configuration mistake, user error or malicious attack was required to put the user’s information at risk.

Misuse of Collected Information

Companies have a responsibility to secure and properly use the data that customers have trusted them with. In the past, failures to properly secure this information has resulted in serious privacy breaches. Through 2017 and the beginning of 2018, there has been an influx of consumer information breaches due to companies improperly securing their cloud storage buckets that contain consumer data. One major factor contributing to this trend is the lack of visibility into these cloud solutions; after a company stores information it may simply be forgotten about. Another factor is the abundance of tools which have sprouted up in recent months that simplify the discovery of misconfigured S3 buckets, both live and cached. Although the steps to secure open cloud storage buckets are simple, they aren’t always followed, adding to the importance of knowing what permissions and information is given to companies through internet connected devices.

One recent case of data misuse by an IoT company perfectly illustrates the importance of applying best security practices for all devices. Strava, a fitness app that connects to exercise related IoT devices and smart phones exposed user locations and even secret military information. This exposure didn’t come through a hack or unsecured storage but it was publicly released in the form of a heat map that showed what routes the wearer of the devices exercised [5]. Although individual user data was not included in the map, a detailed analysis could review private information such as daily routes and private locations.

Conclusion

When picking your devices with privacy in mind it is also important to consider whether the device will receive ongoing support from the manufacturer. One study found that only 49% of Internet of Things (IoT) companies offer updates for their devices [6]. The lack of ongoing support for many IoT devices has lead to vulnerabilities that cannot be patched, meaning the device is inherently insecure.

There are three main takeaways from the examples above.

  1. Know your device: Research any device that is going to be connected to the internet before you buy it. This simple step can quickly weed out devices with a history of security issues.
  2. Research the manufacturer: Does the manufacturer of the device have a long list of other historically unsecure devices? Or are they known for maintaining a security mindset throughout the company?
  3. Know what permissions you give: If a device isn’t collecting your information then that data can’t be leaked or stolen.

Maintaining digital privacy in a world with an ever-increasing amount of internet connected devices is a daunting task, but following these simple steps and having a security-oriented mindset make an impactful difference in the threat landscape.


[1] https://www.dhs.gov/news/2017/09/13/dhs-statement-issuance-binding-operational-directive-17-01

[2] https://www.cnbc.com/2018/02/13/chinas-hauwei-top-us-intelligence-chiefs-caution-americans-away.html

[3] https://info.publicintelligence.net/ICE-DJI-China.pdf

[4] https://threatpost.com/privacy-clouds-form-over-mantistek-gaming-keyboard/128812/

[5] https://www.cyberscoop.com/senators-question-pentagon-workforces-use-data-leaking-fitness-tracking-app-strava/

[6] http://resources.infosecinstitute.com/security-challenges-in-the-internet-of-things-iot/#gref

Huawei:

Strava:

D.J.I. Drones:

Mantistek keyboard

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