Breaking IoT security

Read an article the other day (Researchers exploit low entropy of IoT devices to break RSA certificates) about researchers cracking IoT device security and breaking their public key encryption keys. The report focused on PKI and RSA certificates and IoT devices. The article mentioned the research paper describing the attack in more detail.

safe 'n green by Robert S. Donovan (cc) (from flickr)
safe ‘n green by Robert S. Donovan (cc) (from flickr)

RSA certificates publish a public key and the digital signature of the certificate and identify the device that owns the certificate.

What the researchers were able to show was that ~250K keys in IoT device RSA certificates were insecure. They were able to compromise the 250K RSA certificates using a single Microsoft Azure VM and about $3K of computer time.

It turns out that if two RSA certificate public keys share the same factor, it’s much easier to determine the greatest common devisor GCD) of the two public keys than it is to factor any one of them. And once you have the GCD of the two keys, it’s relatively trivial to determine the other factor in a public key. And that’s just what they did.

Public key infrastructure (PKI) encryption depends on asymmetric cryptography using a “public” key to encrypt messages (or to encrypt a one time key to be used in later encryption of messages) and the use of a “private” key to decrypt the message (or keys) and sign digital certificates. There are certificate authorities and a number of other elements used in PKI but the asymmetric cryptography at its heart, rests on the foundation of the difficulty in factoring large numbers but those large numbers need to be random and prime.

True randomness is hard

Just some of the recently donated seeds that are being added to the Reading Food Growing Network seed swap boxes, including some Polish gherkin seeds.

The problem starts with generating truly random numbers in a digital computer. Digital algorithms typically depend on a computer to perform the some set of instructions, in the same way and sequence so as to get the same answer every time we run the algorithm.

But if you want random numbers this predictability of always coming up with the same answer each time results in non-random numbers (or rather random numbers that are the same each time you run the algorithm). So to get around this, most random number generators can make use of a (random) seed which is used as an input to the algorithm to generate random numbers.

However, this seed needs to be a random number. But to create a random number it needs to be generated not with instructions but using something outside the digital computer. One approach noted above is to use a human typing keys to generate a random number to be used as a seed.

The researchers exploited the fact that most IoT devices don’t use a random (enough) seed for their PKI key generation. And they were able to use the GCD trick to figure out the factors to the PKI.

But the lack of true randomness (or entropy) is the real problem. Somehow, these devices need to have a cheap and effective way to generate a random seed. Until this can be found, they will be subject to these sorts of attacks.

… but not impossible to obtain

I remember in times past when tasked to create a public key-private key pair I had to type some random characters. The Public key encryption algorithm used the inter-character time interval of my typing to generate a random seed that was then used to generate the key pair used in the public key. I believe the two keys also need to be prime numbers.

Earth globe within a locked cage

Perhaps a better approach would be to assign them keys from a centralized key distributor. That way the randomness could be controlled by the (key) distributor.

There are other approaches that depend on the sensors available to an IoT device. If the device has a camera or mic, taking raw data from the camera or sound sensor and doing a numerical transform on them may suffice. Strain gauges, liquid levels, temperature, humidity, wind speed, etc. all of these devices have something which senses the world around them and many of these are, at their base, analog sensors. Reading and converting some portion of these analog signals from raw analog to a digital random seed could be very effective way to generate true(r) randomness.

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The paper has much more information about the attack and their results if your interested. They said that ~50% of the compromised devices were from a large network supplier. Such suppliers probably also have a vast majority of devices deployed. Still it’s troubling, nonetheless.

Until changes are made to IoT devices, they will continue to be insecure. Not as much of a problem when they are read only sensors but when the information they sense is used by robots or other automation to make decisions about actions, then having insecure IoT becomes a safety issue.

This is not the first time such an attack was attempted and each time, it’s been very successful. That alone should be cause for alarm. But IoT and similar devices are hard to patch in the field and their continuing insecurity may be more of a result of the difficulty of updating a large install base than anything else.

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