What is IoT authentication and why does it matter?

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By Hebberly Ahatlan


  • Upwards of 80% of breaches happened due to weak or stolen passwords
  • Unauthorized access is one of the most common security risks of IoT devices, without it attackers can access and manipulate sensitive data  
  • Malware is often used to gain access to devices and manipulate data or launch malicious attacks
  • Poor security practices like lack of two-factor authentication leads to gaping security holes. And nowhere is this more apparent than with IoT authentication.

What Is IoT?

IoT, or the Internet of Things, refers to a network of disparate, interconnected devices. These devices have smart features to manage appliances and systems. They give their owner precise control, while also interacting to provide service in harmony.

The perfect example of this is the smart home. You have an air conditioner, washer, and even a doorbell on the same network. These devices can work together to improve your lifestyle.

IoT-enabled homes and businesses allow supreme control to their users. They can improve not only security, but convenience. However, they open up a network to a whole gamut of attack vectors.

What is IoT authentication?

Authentication is the means by which a system verifies trusted devices. Secure networks can tell when a false trusted device attempts to gain access. Unfortunately, the current IoT landscape proves to be a less-than-secure one.

The problem is a lack of standardization. Chances are, your business uses a wide variety of smart devices. The RFID scanner that permits access to employees is a different brand from the printer.

A cohesive ecosystem is key to the best security. That’s easier said than done since the closest you can get to that ecosystem is buying all devices from the same brand.

The issue at hand is there’s no standard protocol. When mobile devices talk to industrial control systems, there’s no industry-wide standard to authenticate this interaction. For this very reason, hacks of IoT-enabled devices are quite common.

An near-field communication (NFC) transaction at the local gas station is secure because of standardization. Every store across the world uses the same protocol to read and authenticate a card’s NFC chip. That makes NFC hard to hack, and a robust, secure method of payment transactions.

IoT, on the other hand, suffers at the hand of its weakest link. If a hacker can compromise one device, they could own the entire network. This is why proper IoT PKI (private key infrastructure) is paramount to securing your network.

The complexity of so many devices makes it difficult to identify weak points. This fragmentation may continue to be a feature of IoT authentication networks until we apply a universal standard. Let’s discuss a few of the problems that weak IoT authentication can lead to.

How poor IoT authentication weakens the network

What makes the IoT so easy to use is also its primary pitfall: network connectivity. 

When a hacker begins to canvas a target, they hit the networks first. Once they have network credentials, they’re in. That’s why phishing emails or elevated privileges are a hacker’s goldmine.

But nowadays, IoT devices provide an easier target. Many companies put little effort into the security of their smart devices. This goes double for cheaper brands or brands that haven’t been tested.

By applying a scripted hack to a known vulnerability, a hacker gets in much easier. And once they have network credentials, they can leapfrog to other devices. From there, it may lead to disaster.

IoT devices make it difficult to maintain your levels of defense. An RFID reader on the outside of the building becomes a target if it connects to the main system deeper inside. Keeping the high-value components of your network out of reach becomes more difficult.

Further, compliance is important. If your business works with customer data, it may be subject to privacy legislation–and failure to patch holes may lead to non-compliance.

Let’s consider a few ways to improve IoT authentication.

Strengthening certificates to verify device identity

Certificates make up an important part of network security across the board. It allows two agnostic users to verify other trusted devices. It usually does this with a public and private cryptographic key.

Some practices are inherently flawed when it comes to certificates. For example, self-signed certificates. Any internet browser will flag these as fraudulent, but in the IoT world, there’s less rigor.

A certificate needs signing from a certificate authority (CA). This prevents hackers from squeezing in through the gap left by poor certificates. 

To strengthen IoT authentication, it’s ideal to use X.509 certificates. You need a CA to issue these certificates and later verify how genuine they are. Further, there should be strong cryptographic standards.

Using devices from the same ecosystem

This is a simple fix until the IoT authentication gets global standardization. If all your devices run on a similar OS, that reduces fractures in the network. Not only that, but it makes them integrate better for your convenience.

This limits the attack vectors by a large margin. That means you can educate yourself on the flaws inherent to these devices. Your IT team or a security contractor can help to patch the holes.

Similar devices mean fewer “chinks” in the armor. When two disparate systems connect, there will inevitably be a mismatch between them. That mismatch can create novel vulnerabilities that might not exist in an alternate configuration.

Shopping for a single ecosystem gives you a chance to prioritize security. If a brand has a reputation for infrequent updates, you can look elsewhere. Doing thorough research of past vulnerabilities will help.

Of course, no company will likely be a single source for all smart devices, depending on your needs. At the very least, you can purchase them all from a few select brands. 

Remember, IoT authentication is so tricky because of fragmentation. A system using smart devices from two brands is more secure than a system using smart devices from ten. Until a standardized protocol exists, the best you can do is limit attack vectors.

Limit permissions 

Permissions determine what level of credentials a device has. Giving more permissions to a device inherently elevates its privileges. This can prove problematic in an IoT system.

Thus, one solution is to limit privileges. Reducing the write access of a device is one way of going about this. Another is to limit which devices it can connect with.

Certificates are, again, a great way to implement this. If the lights don’t have permission to interface with the CCTV, then you’ve effectively patched a security hole. 

Further, it’s important to limit who can control a device. Reducing privileges to a select few is always good security practice. Making sure that not just anyone can look at security cams means hackers will have trouble accessing them.

It’s important that smart devices defer to their home network. If they’re allowing connections from outsiders, that’s a problem. Preventing smart devices from making new connections keeps them isolated.

Update regularly

It’s important never to view updates as an annoyance. Updates are almost always a patch for security vulnerabilities.

Zero-day exploits (undiscovered vulnerabilities) are a serious threat to your business. They leave you exposed once a hacker discovers them. The only way to fix them is through an update.

This is why you should update your systems the moment a patch becomes available. The longer you wait to update your devices, the higher the risk is of a hack.

This failure to patch systems leads to many of the cyber attacks we see today. A hacker will crawl the internet, looking for systems that haven’t applied the most recent patch. Since many people delay updates, there tends to be a long list of vulnerable options.

Making it a habit to update your IoT authentication network is one of the easiest ways to improve security. Many devices can do automatic updates. 

But of course, if you let just any unauthenticated process update your device with arbitrary code you’re actually opening an opportunity for an attacker to take over your device with their software.

That’s why devices all need secure boot. Secure boot assures that only authenticated software is running on the device and that it hasn’t been modified. Similarly, software updates must be digitally signed as well. In that way, only an authenticated party has the ability to change the software on a device.

Find the best IoT authentication for you

IoT authentication refers to how smart devices on a network verify device identity. IoT provides great convenience, but the current landscape suffers from fragmentation. Using strong authentication is essential to shoring up the weakness of an IoT-enabled network. It is essential for device identity, for secure communications and ensuring your software is your own and not an attackers’.

Not sure where to start when it comes to PKI and CA? Intertrust has you covered. Get in contact for a free consultation, and future-proof your network against threats of all kinds.


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