The overwhelming power of small things
by Karl D. Stephan | November 07, 2016
Late in October millions of internet users trying to access popular websites including Twitter, Netflix, the New York Times, and Wired suddenly saw them stop working.
The reason was that for a few hours, a massive distributed-denial-of-service (DDOS) attack hit a domain-name-server (DNS) company called Dyn, based in New Hampshire. As I mentioned in last week's blog, DNS companies provide a sort of phone-book service that turns URLs such as www.google.com into machine-readable addresses that connect the person requesting a website to the server that hosts it.
They are a particularly vulnerable part of the Internet, because one DNS unit can handle requests for thousands of websites, so if you take that DNS machine down, you've automatically damaged all those websites as long as the DNS is out of service.
DDOS attacks are nothing new, but the October 21 attack was the largest yet to use primarily Internet-of-Things (IoT) devices in its "botnet" of infected devices. The Internet of Things is the proliferation of small sensors, monitors, and other devices less fancy than a standard computer that are connected to the internet for various purposes.
Here's where the zombie cameras come in. Say you buy an inexpensive security camera for your home and get it talking to your wireless connection.
If you're like millions of other buyers of such devices, you don't bother to change the default password or otherwise enhance the security features that would prevent unauthorized access to the device, like you might do if you bought a new laptop computer.
Security experts have known for some time about a new type of malware called Mirai that takes over poorly protected always-on IoT devices such as security cameras and video recorders. When the evil genius who sent out the Mirai malware sends a signal to the infected gizmos, they all start spouting requests to the targeted DNS server, which immediately gets buried in requests and can't respond to anybody. That is what a DDOS attack is.
As the victim learns the nature of the requests, programmers can mount a defense, but skillful attackers can foil these defenses too, for a time, anyway. The attackers went away after three attacks that day, each lasting a couple of hours, but by then the damage had been done. The attacks made significant dents in the revenue streams of a number of companies.
And perhaps most importantly, we learned from experience that the much-ballyhooed Internet of Things has a dark side. The question now is, what should we do about it?
Senator Mark Warner, a Democrat from Virginia, has reportedly sent letters to the FCC and other relevant Federal agencies asking that same question. According to a report on the website Computerworld, Warner has a background in the telecom industry and recognizes that government regulation may not be the best answer. For one thing, internet technology can change so fast that by the time a legislative or administrative process finally produces a regulation, it can be outmoded even before it's put into action.
Warner thinks that the IoT industries should develop some kind of seal of security approval or rating system that consumers could use to compare prospective IoT devices before they buy.
This may get somewhere, and then again it may not. The reason is that an IoT device that can be used in a DDOS attack but otherwise functions normally as far as the consumer is concerned, is a classic case of what economists call an "externality."
A more familiar type of externality is air-pollution abatement devices on cars: catalytic converters, the diesel exhaust fluid that US truck drivers now have to buy, and all that stuff. None of it makes your car run better; in fact, cars can get better mileage or performance if they don't have that anti-pollution stuff working, as Volkswagen knew when it purposely disabled the anti-pollution function on some of its diesel models and turned it on only to pass government inspections.
The pollution your car would cause without anti-pollution equipment is an externality. The additional pollution that your car causes is so small that you won't notice it. Only when you add up the contributions of the millions of cars in a city does it become a problem. But if you don't have anti-pollution stuff on your car, you're adding a tiny bit to the air pollution that everybody in your city has to breathe. It's that involuntary aspect, the fact that other people are put at a disadvantage because of your action (or inaction), that makes it an externality.
The vulnerability of IoT devices to being used in DDOS attacks is an externality of a similar kind. When you buy and install a security camera, or rent a video recorder from your cable company, and they don't have enough security software installed to prevent them from being used in a DDOS attack, you're raising the risk of such an attack for everybody on the internet. And they don't have a choice in the matter.
Historically, externality problems such as air and water pollution have been resolved only when the government gets involved at some level. When the externality problems are strictly local, sometimes local political pressures can resolve the issue, but the internet is by its nature a global thing, in the main, although for reasons that are not entirely clear, the October attacks affected mainly East Coast users.
So my guess is that to fix this issue, we are going to have to have national or international governmental cooperation to set some rules and fix minimum standards for IoT devices regarding this specific problem.
The solutions are not that hard technically: things like attaching a unique username and password to each IoT device and designing them to receive security updates. These measures are already in place for conventional computers, and as IoT devices get more sophisticated, the additional cost of these security measures will decline to the point that it will be a no-brainer, I hope.
But right now there are millions of the gizmos out there that are still vulnerable and it would be very hard to get rid of them by any means other than waiting for them to break or get replaced by new ones. So we have created a serious security problem that somebody, somewhere has figured out how to take advantage of.
Let's hope that the recent attack was the last big one of this kind. But right now that's all it is—just a hope.
Karl D. Stephan is a professor of electrical engineering at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. This article has been republished, with permission, from his blog, Engineering Ethics,which is a MercatorNet partner site. His ebook Ethical and Otherwise: Engineering In the Headlines is available in Kindle format and also in the iTunes store.