Why is the smart home insecure? Because almost nobody cares

The miserable life of the security veep

Dunce's cap graffiti by https://www.flickr.com/photos/lord-jim/ cc 2.0 attribution https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

It's easy to laugh-and-point at Samsung over its latest smart-thing disaster: after all, it should have already learned its lesson from the Smart TV debacle, right?

Except, of course, that wherever you see “Smart Home”, “Internet of Things”, “cloud” and “connected” in the same press release, there's a security debacle coming. It might be Nest, WeMo, security systems, or home gateways – but it's all the same.

Meet the suffering security bod

Why? Let me introduce someone I'll call the Junior VP of Embedded Systems Security, who wears the permanent pucker of chronic disappointment.

The reason he looks so disappointed is that he's in charge of embedded Internet of Things security for a prominent Smart Home startup.

Everybody said “get into security, you'll be employable forever on a good income”, so he did.

Because it's a startup he has to live in the Valley. After his $10k per month take-home, the rent leaves him just enough to live on Soylent plus whatever's on offer in the company canteen where every week is either vegan week or paleo week.

Nobody told him that as Junior VP for Embedded Systems Security (JVPESS), his job is to give advice that's routinely ignored or overruled.

Meet the designer

“All we want to do is integrate the experience of the bedside A.M. clock-radio into a fully-social cloud platform to leverage its audience reach and maximise the effectiveness of converting advertising into a positive buying experience”, the Chief Design Officer said (the CDO dresses like Jony Ive, because they retired the Steve Jobs uniform like a football club retiring the Number 10 jumper when Pele quit).

For his implementation, the JVPESS chose a chip so stupid the Republicans want to field it as Trump's running-mate, wrote a communications spec that did exactly and only what was in the requirements, and briefed the embedded software engineer.

The embedded software engineer only makes stuff actually work, so he earns about one-sixth that of the User Experience Ninja that reports to Jony Ive's Style Slave and has to live in Detroit. But he's boring and conscientious and delivers the code.

Eventually, the JVPESS hands over a design to Jony Ive's Outfit knowing it'll end in tears.

Two weeks later, Jony Ive's Style Slave returns to request approval for “just a couple of last minute revisions. We have to press 'go' on the project by close-of-business today so if you could just look this over”.

Just a few revisions ...

That's when the JVPESS finds out that to satisfy the User Experience Ninja, the processor has been upgraded to something that could cure cancer, the operating system is now Android, and someone seems to think the “pirate radio” Easter Egg deep down in the software is funny.

After the yelling, the Ninja explains he absolutely must have a decent OS if he's to optimise the AM-Control-app, which is going to run on customers' smartphones and communicate with the radio through the cloud. Of course it's secure, it's encrypted.

The cloud will also serve as the repository for ratings data, and the whole thing will be integrated with seventeen different motor vehicle control systems so the ratings companies can finally get live, realtime numbers...

“And if we don't have decent user data for leverage into Google analytics, the product will be too expensive”, The Outfit chimes in.

There's no point in taking this up with the CSO. He's just an MBA whose only skill is picking the next job description Gartner says will be in hot demand.

So the JVPESS seeks out the only person at board level who still speaks to him, the Chief Data Officer. She is also familiar with disappointment: she can deliver customer insights accurate to nine decimal places, but Jony Ive's Style Slave has given TED talks about the How Chrysler Disrupted Autos By Inventing the Soccer Mum.

Alas, she likes the idea of customer metrics, so the JVPESS leaves her office, once again disappointed.

What ships has a security architecture re-implemented in half an hour using a deprecated version of OpenSSL and a self-signed certificate with hard-coded crypto credentials.

The product is a market hit, and within a month, blackhats have dropped malware on a million Android phones, and users get messages at 14 minutes past midnight demanding 0.56 Bitcoin to switch off the message, and Nielsen thinks the top-rating show airs at 2AM on a community radio station in West Bumcrack, Iowa, whose only content is speeches from YouTube by Julian Assange and Edward Snowden.

The JVPESS is charged with sorting out the mess, while the Ninja and Jony Ive's Style Slave want the patched code ported to a home security console by Monday, because the second-round investors are demanding a pivot.

That's why the JVPESS always looks disappointed. And that's why debacles like Samsung's Great Refrigerator Disaster will keep happening. ®

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