#IoT Sensor Breakthroughs When Lives Are On the Line!

One of my unchanging principles is always to look to situations where there’s a lot at stake — especially human lives — for breakthroughs in difficult issues.

Exhibit A of this principle for the IoT is sensor design, where needing to frequently service or recharge critical sensors that detect battlefield conditions can put soldiers’ lives at stake (yes, as long-time readers know, this is particularly of interest to me because my Army officer son was wounded in Iraq).

FedTech reports encouraging research at DARPA on how to create sensors that have ultra-low power requirements, can lie dormant for long periods of time and yet are exquisitely sensitive to critical changes in conditions (such as vehicle or troop movements) that might put soldiers at risk in battlefield conditions.

The  N-ZERO (Near Zero RF and Power Operations)  program is a three-year initiative to create new, low-energy battlefield sensors, particularly for use at forward operating bases where conditions can change quickly and soldiers are constantly at risk — especially if they have to service the sensors:

“State-of-the-art military sensors rely on “active electronics” to detect vibration, light, sound or other signals for situational awareness and to inform tactical planning and action. That means the sensors constantly consume power, with much of that power spent processing what often turns out to be irrelevant data. This power consumption limits sensors’ useful lifetimes to a few weeks or months with even the best batteries and has slowed the development of new sensor technologies and capabilities. The chronic need to service or redeploy power-depleted sensors is not only costly and time-consuming but also increases warfighter exposure to danger.”

…. (the project has) the goal of developing the technological foundation for persistent, event-driven sensing capabilities in which the sensor can remain dormant, with near-zero power consumption, until awakened by an external trigger or stimulus. Examples of relevant stimuli are acoustic signatures of particular vehicle types or radio signatures of specific communications protocols. If successful, the program could extend the lifetime of remotely deployed communications and environmental sensors—also known as unattended ground sensors (UGS)—from weeks or months to years.”

A key goal is a 20-fold battery size reduction while still having the sensor last longer.

What cost-conscious pipeline operators, large ag business or “smart city” transportation director wouldn’t be interested in that kind of product as well?

According to Signal, the three-phase project is ahead of its targets. In the first part, which ended in December, the DARPA team created “zero-power receivers that can detect very weak signals — less than 70 decibel-milliwatt radio-frequency (RF) transmissions, a measure that is better than originally expected.” This is critical to the military (and would have huge benefits to business as well, since monitoring frequently must be 24/7 but reporting of background data  (vs. significant changes) would both deplete batteries while requiring processing of huge volumes of meaningless data). Accordingly, a key goal would be to create “… radio receivers that are continuously alert for friendly radio transmissions, but with near zero power consumption when transmissions are not present.” A target is  “exploitation of the energy in the signal signature itself to detect and discriminate the events of interest while rejecting noise and interference. This requires the development of passive or event-powered sensors and signal-processing circuitry. The successful development of these techniques and components could enable deployments of sensors that can remain “off” (that is, in a state that does not consume battery power), yet alert for detecting signatures of interest, resulting in greatly extended durations of operation.”

The “exploitation of .. energy in the signal signature itself sounds reminiscent of the University of Washington research I’ve reported in the past that would harness ambient back-scatter to allow battery-less wireless transmission, another key potential advance in IoT sensor networks.

The following phrases of N-ZERO will each take a year.

Let’s hope that the project is an overall success, and that the end products will also be commercialized. I’ve always felt sensor cost and power needs were potential IoT Achilles’ heels, so that would be a major boost!

When Philips’s Hue Bulbs Are Attacked, IoT Security Becomes Even Bigger Issue

OK, what will it take to make security (and privacy) job #1 for the IoT industry?

The recent Mirai DDoS attack should have been enough to get IoT device companies to increase their security and privacy efforts.

Now we hear that the Hue bulbs from Philips, a global electronics and IoT leader that DOES emphasize security and doesn’t cut corners, have been the focus of a potentially devastating attack (um, just wonderin’: how does triggering mass epileptic seizures through your light bulbs grab you?).

Since it’s abundantly clear that the US president-elect would rather cut regulations than add needed ones (just announcing that, for every new regulation, two must be cut), the burden of improving IoT security will lie squarely on the shoulders of the industry itself. BTW:kudos in parting to outgoing FTC Chair Edith Ramirez, who has made intelligent, workable IoT regulations in collaboration with self-help efforts by the industry a priority. Will we be up to the security challenge, or, as I’ve warned before, will security and privacy lapses totally undermine the IoT in its adolescence by losing the public and corporate confidence and trust that is so crucial in this particular industry?

Count me among the dubious.

Here’s what happened in this truly scary episode, which, for the first time, presages making the focus of an IoT hack an entire city, by exploiting what might otherwise be a smart city/smart grid virtue: a large installed base of smart bulbs, all within communication distance of each other. The weapons? An off-the-shelf drone and an USB stick (the same team found that a car will also do nicely as an attack vector). Fortunately, the perpetrators in this case were a group of white-hat hackers from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel and Dalhousie University in Canada, who reported it to Philips so they could implement additional protections, which the company did.

Here’s what they wrote about their plan of attack:

“In this paper we describe a new type of threat in which adjacent IoT devices will infect each other with a worm that will spread explosively over large areas in a kind of nuclear chain reaction (my emphasis), provided that the density of compatible IoT devices exceeds a certain critical mass. In particular, we developed and verified such an infection using the popular Philips Hue smart lamps as a platform.

“The worm spreads by jumping directly from one lamp to its neighbors, using only their built-in ZigBee wireless connectivity and their physical proximity. The attack can start by plugging in a single infected bulb anywhere in the city, and then catastrophically spread everywhere within minutes, enabling the attacker to turn all the city lights on or off, permanently brick them, or exploit them in a massive DDOS attack (my emphasis). To demonstrate the risks involved, we use results from percolation theory to estimate the critical mass of installed devices for a typical city such as Paris whose area is about 105 square kilometers: The chain reaction will fizzle if there are fewer than about 15,000 randomly located smart lights in the whole city, but will spread everywhere when the number exceeds this critical mass (which had almost certainly been surpassed already (my emphasis).

“To make such an attack possible, we had to find a way to remotely yank already installed lamps from their current networks, and to perform over-the-air firmware updates. We overcame the first problem by discovering and exploiting a major bug in the implementation of the Touchlink part of the ZigBee Light Link protocol, which is supposed to stop such attempts with a proximity test. To solve the second problem, we developed a new version of a side channel attack to extract the global AES-CCM key that Philips uses to encrypt and authenticate new firmware. We used only readily available equipment costing a few hundred dollars, and managed to find this key without seeing any actual updates. This demonstrates once again how difficult it is to get security right even for a large company that uses standard cryptographic techniques to protect a major product.”

Again, this wasn’t one of those fly-by-night Chinese manufacturers of low-end IoT devices, but Philips, a major, respected, and vigilant corporation.

As for the possible results? It could:

  •  jam WiFi connections
  • disturb the electric grid
  • brick devices making entire critical systems inoperable
  • and, as I mentioned before, cause mass epileptic seizures.

As for the specifics, according to TechHive, the researchers installed Hue bulbs in several offices in an office building in the Israeli city of Beer Sheva. In a nice flair for the ironic, the building housed several computer security firms and the Israeli Computer Emergency Response Team.  They attached the attack kit on the USB stick to a drone, and flew it toward the building from 350 meters away. When they got to the building they took over the bulbs and made them flash the SOS signal in Morse Code.

The researchers”were able to bypass any prohibitions against remote access of the networked light bulbs, and then install malicious firmware. At that point the researchers were able to block further wireless updates, which apparently made the infection irreversible. ‘There is no other method of reprogramming these [infected] devices without full disassemble (which is not feasible). Any old stock would also need to be recalled, as any devices with vulnerable firmware can be infected as soon as power is applied.’”

Worst of all, the attack was against Zigbee, one of the most robust and widely-used IoT protocols, an IoT favorite because Zigbee networks tend to be cheaper and simpler than WiFi or BlueTooth.

The attack points up one of the critical ambiguities about the IoT. On one hand, the fact that it allows networking of devices leads to “network effects,” where each device becomes more valuable because of the synergies with other IoT devices. On the other hand, that same networking and use of open standards means that penetrating one device can mean ultimately penetrating millions and compounding the damage.

I’m hoping against hope that when Trump’s team tries to implement cyber-warfare protections they’ll extend the scope to include the IoT because of this specific threat. If they do, they’ll realize that you can’t just say yes cyber-security and no, regulations. In the messy world of actually governing, rather than issuing categorical dictums, you sometimes have to embrace the messy world of ambiguity.  

What do you think?


IoT Security After “The Interview”

Posted on 22nd December 2014 in defense, Internet of Things, M2M, management, privacy, security, US government

Call me an alarmist, but in the wake of the “Interview” catastrophe (that’s how I see it in terms of both the First Amendment AND asymmetrical cyberwarfare), I see this as a clarion call to the #IoT industry to redouble efforts to make both security AND privacy Job #1.

Here’s the deal: if we want to enhance more and more parts of governmental, commercial, and private lives by clever IoT devices and apps to control them, then there’s an undeniable quid pro quo: we MUST make these devices and apps as secure as possible.

I remember some bright young entrepreneurs speaking at a recent wearables conference, where they apologized for not having put attention on privacy and security yet, saying they’d get to it early next year.



Security must be built in from the beginning, and constantly upgraded as new threats emerge.  I used to be a corporate crisis manager, and one of the things that was so hard to convince left-brained, extremely rational engineers about was that just because fears were irrational didn’t mean they weren’t real — even the perception of insecure IoT devices and apps has the potential to kill the whole industry, or, as Vanity Fair‘s apocalyptic “Look Out, He’s Got a Phone” article documented, it could literally kill us. As in deader than a doornail.

This incident should have convinced us all that there are some truly evil people out there fixated on bringing us to our collective knees, and they have the tech savvy to do it, using tools such as Shodan. ‘Nuff said?

PS: Here’s what Mr. Cybersecurity, Bruce Schneier, has to say on the subject. Read carefully.

Essential Truth: Gathering “Ground Truth” through IoT

This is the second in my occasional series of “Essential Truths” — key principles and questions about the Internet of Things.

On Tuesday, when I speak to our next Boston/New England IoT Meetup on the issue of “human communications and the IoT” one of the concepts I’ll be focusing on is what Chris Rezendes of INEX Advisors calls “ground truth,” a concept he was exposed to through his work with clients in the defense industry.

This is the idea that when devices become “smart,” they give off “digital exhaust” (in the same way as our searches do, which Google analyzes, allowing improvement in search results) which creates “device intelligence” that we can analyze and act upon. That is ground truth: accurate data about real-world conditions that we can share in real-time to improve operating performance and analysis.

According to Chris,

“You will have data, objective facts, about that tree or tidal pool, that machine or that vehicle, that room or that field, that patient or that criminal. The data in that ground truth will complement certain aspects of our perceptions about those things; and displace our misperceptions. And that ground truth will help us all make better decisions about how to manage our time on earth.”
— “Internet of Things: Grandest Opportunity, Most Stubborn Challenges

It seems to me that this is one of the IoT’s most important potential benefits: improving decision-making by being able to base it on factual, timely information.

Think, for example, about the contentious issue of global warming. Cisco’s  “Planetary Skin,” and HP’s  “central nervous system for the planet” projects will deploy unprecedented numbers of remote sensors planet-wide, yielding real-time data about how global warming is affecting your community. It may not win over the hard-core global warming deniers (they’ll never listen to reason, IMHO!) but it should provide the objective evidence that rational people can agree on as the basis for action.

Even better, we can also improve this decision making because of my first “Essential Truth,” learning to ask “who else can use this data?”  Think of it: within limits, of course, the more perspectives that are brought into decision making the more likely we are to make sound decisions, because the likelihood of leaving out some important perspective and not analyzing all the possible ramifications is reduced. In the past, we could never do that, because we didn’t have the real-time data, and we couldn’t involve all of those people on a real-time basis.

I suspect that this will be a major issue for management theorists to bat around in coming years, and that our decision-making processes will be fundamentally altered for the better. IMHO, it is this change in decision making, not advances such as automatic regulation of assembly lines or building in feedback loops between manufacturers and customers, is perhaps the most important thing that the IoT will allow. It will have profound impact!

Thanks for the concept, Chris!

Want to help plan how Internet of Things will transform government? Join my new GovLoop group!

Have no doubt about it: the Internet of Things will transform government, affecting public security, defense, environmental protection, transport, and health.  If you’d like to be part of the community planning how to help government capitalize on the IoT, please join my new GovLoop community on the topic!