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Al Williams

Dr. Dobb's Bloggers

Security Blanket

August 26, 2014

Life used to be simpler, especially in the world of embedded systems. I've worked on a lot of systems that, if they didn't work right, could cost people their lives. However, it seems lately there's a new kind of safety to be worried about: safety from hackers.

When systems were not connected to networks, security wasn't such a problem. A locked box or a password on the serial console port would suffice to keep people out of your computing device. Today, things are more and more connected.

Obviously, if you are controlling a chemical plant or an automated vehicle, you can see the need to protect your network connections. There have been some high-profile cases in the past where hackers (sometimes organized hackers) have hacked into control systems for various reasons.

But what about consumer electronics? A recent hack lets you take over a nearby Chromecast with a Raspberry Pi and show the unsuspecting owner a Rick Astley video. Even the FitBit has been the target of hacking.

You might not be concerned about some trivial hacks to a Chromecast or a FitBit. What about your thermostat or a smart TV that contains account information? If your fitness-tracking device has a GPS, you might not appreciate people being able to find your whereabouts. Even if you aren't anywhere you aren't supposed to be, it probably isn't a good idea to advertise to hackers when you are far away from your home or office.

As things get more connected, we are going to have to get more adept at using public key cryptography, secure authentication, non-repudiation, and encryption. The FitBit, for example, apparently uses regular HTTP to transfer data, which exposes everything to anyone who cares to listen. With so many security breaches, you would think more web traffic would be encrypted. Sure, it takes a little setup, but network bandwidth isn't as scarce as it used to be for most people. Google apparently came to the same conclusion as they recently announced they'd rank secure sites higher in search listings and have called for HTTPS everywhere.

I suppose it isn't surprising. As "little" computers get more like the desktop computers of yesterday, we've had to embrace mass storage devices, networking, and now security. Safety and quality measures are still important for most systems, but for the future, they won't be sufficient.

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