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Vint Cerf: 'The internet of things needs to be locked down'

Your air conditioner is a national security threat

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RSA 2013 Device manufacturers who are sticking internet connections into everything from TVs to toasters need to lock down their systems with strong authentication, Google's chief internet evangelist Vint Cerf warned the RSA keynote audience.

Cerf said he was "frankly astonished" at the range of devices that now come with an internet connection. Back in the 1980s at the Interop conference, people used to joke about having an internet-enabled toaster, but you can now buy one in the shops. Internet-enabled air conditioners, light bulbs, and fridges are all available.

But there has been very little work to lock down these devices, Cerf said, and this must be addressed. While an internet fridge isn't much of a threat, it and other systems could be hacked, and the results could range from the simply irritating to the catastrophic.

He cited the use of internet-equipped air-conditioning systems. If a hacker could get control of the nation's aircon units, and cycle between shutting them down and whacking them up to full, you might be able to crash the US power grid, Cerf suggested.

Such a possibility is remote, and would be well in the future, but requires thought now, he said. Just as encryption that relies on factoring needs to fear the looming threat of quantum computing, so too the internet of things needs to be equipped with much stronger authentication, he concluded. ®

Bootnote

The internet-equipped toaster has become the stuff of technology legend, but one was actually built in 1990, after the president of Interop Dan Lynch bet John Romkey, who built the first TCP/IP stack for IBM PC in 1982, that he couldn't manage to build one. If he could manage it, Lynch promised him a top keynote spot at the following year's conference.

Never one to back away from a tech challenge, Romkey and a friend took a Sunbeam Deluxe Automatic Radiant Control Toaster and added TCP/IP and a Simple Networking Management Protocol Management Information Base controller. It went on display in 1990, and got an upgrade in 1991 with the addition of an internet-controlled robotic arm to load it with bread.

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