Smart building security: Threats, tips and tricks
by Mirko Zorz - Editor in Chief - Thursday, 29 August 2013.
Martin Lee is the Technical Lead, Threat Intelligence at Cisco. In this interview he discusses the critical security threats to smart buildings, the features of a robust and secure smart building system, and much more.

What are some of the most critical security threats to smart buildings today?

Smart buildings are being implemented without necessarily designing security into these systems from the beginning. Because of this, we risk creating smart buildings that have inherent weaknesses that attackers can exploit. We’ve seen this happen in many other environments; unless security considerations are implemented as part of the design, we will be forever trying to bolt on extra security and playing catch up with attackers.

This model of providing security has proved to be expensive and inefficient. We are now at a point that we can apply our experience of securing other systems to ensure that smart building systems are well designed and resilient to attack.

The provision of services to buildings such as power, water, electricity and internal facilities such as heating, air conditioning, lighting, lifts and door locks may all rely on small embedded computers, as these computers become networked to create a smart building we are creating new risks. Without considering the security needs of these devices and the networks that connect them, we’re creating the environment where attackers may maliciously activate motors, pumps, valves, open or close locks, control heating settings etc.

For example, permanent damage can be caused to information systems if the air conditioning in a data centre is disabled. Water dripping from an overflowing cistern that is constantly being replenished, even though it is full due to a faulty sensor or actuator, can wreck electronic equipment. Additionally, an office without water and functional washrooms is one where the workforce cannot operate without breaks.

We’ve recently seen attackers launch denial of service attacks against financial services organisations in an apparent attempt to occupy and distract security teams while more sophisticated attacks to compromise systems is undertaken. We can envisage the scenario where poorly protected environmental control systems that have not been subject to any security oversight are compromised by an attacker who switches the air conditioning to full heat and waits for the security operations team to take a break to cool down before launching an attack on sensitive systems.

A security researcher conducted research on the Philips hue lighting system and found a vulnerability that can be used by malware on an infected machine on the user's internal network to cause a sustained blackout. This is probably just the tip of the iceberg considering how many companies and technologies are part of a smart building. What can owners do to make sure they are protected? Are we nearing a time when we'll need a penetration tester like we need our chimneys cleaned every year?

As we are beginning to see these smart building systems deployed, we are also beginning to discover that these systems have vulnerabilities. We need to start considering these smart networked appliances as the small computers that they are, rather than as the dumb electrical appliances that they replace. Like any networked computer system, we need to think about how we authenticate users and machines on the network, how we control network access, how we enforce access to devices, and most importantly how these systems will be patched and maintained when they are deployed.


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