Home > Articles > Security > General Security and Privacy

Secure Your Embedded Systems Now!

  • Print
  • + Share This
John Traenkenschuh explores the somewhat hidden world of embedded computing and its emerging security issues. As computing power spreads into our everyday appliances and electronic devices, many principles of computer security are slow to be added to the feature list. What can we do?
Like this article? We recommend

Some two years after purchasing the appliance, and months after the end of the extended warranty, my refrigerator sounded odd. The compressor would start and then just as quickly terminate. This wasn't good! The fridge was getting warmer and warmer, with foodstuff sure to spoil. What to do?

I called the appliance vendor and explained my situation. I was panicked. What was the answer?

"Do you know the power cable and the outlet it's plugged into?"

"Yes," I replied (with, "Not personally," being the unspoken response to being patronized).

"Unplug it."

"What?! Unplug my fridge to fix a compressor problem?"

"Unplug it to reset the computer."

"It's not a used $200 laptop," I gasped.

"Hey, what works for a $200 computer, turns out works for an $800 refrigerator."

"But, but, but…."

"Today's appliances have a microprocessor—a small computer that keeps the food cold more reliably than older systems. At times, the learning mode has a glitch. The best thing to do is to wipe the memory by shutting the power off 15 minutes or so."

And it worked.

As a car mechanic, I know all about disconnecting the battery to do a deep erase of the power train control module/engine control unit (PCM/ECU). But imagine my surprise as techniques used for an $18,000 car now applied to refrigerators. Overall, computing is pervasive, invading everything electronic. The wrinkle? Increasingly, manufacturers are planning to link their products—your property, with your information—to them, via the Internet.

There are benefits. Each doohickey you own will report service and performance data to the vendor cloud. By detecting and reporting problems early, the problems can be fixed early, before damage worsens. Your next email message from your washer's manufacturer may be an offer to send a repair person to your home to change a bad bearing or swap out a motor that's drawing far too much amperage—long before the washer has a failure (after the warranty expires).

This information will give product vendors better line-of-sight to product design, typical usage, wear points, and so on. No matter how much testing is done before bringing a product to market, some defects are found only when the product is used widely.

In this article, we'll take a look at what constitutes an embedded system. Despite the risks of this brave new world, I want to encourage you to join the "Internet of things." Finally, I'll point out six simple things you can do to secure your own embedded systems.

What Is an Embedded System?

An embedded system is created to serve specific tasks, often within set time constraints, and typically as part of larger system. For example, within a heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) system, an embedded system might monitor the initial positioning of distribution valves, dependent on environmental factors such as building temperature, necessary quantity at building coordinates, and so forth.

Current decreasing costs for microprocessors and sensors allow electronic engineers to use many more sensors, sample more conditions, and use embedded systems to control system behavior with greater reliability across a wider range of responses, even within specified time limits.

You probably have embedded systems throughout your home, not just in the appliances I've mentioned. Your 1970s digital watch was likely an embedded system, now updated as Microsoft and Apple create "smart watch" prototypes. Your home alarm is an embedded system. Your Blu-ray player that streams movies in real time is an embedded system. In your garage? The most-studied embedded system is the automobile, whose embedded systems can constitute up to one-third of the cost of a premium car.

Let's focus on automotive embedded systems for a moment. Estimates of the number of lines of code in Windows NT 3.1 (1993) range from 4–5 million lines. A premier automobile is estimated to have more than 100 million lines of code, often scattered among dozens of embedded computers. These embedded controllers might memorize the exact position of your seat or a song you played from your iPod. The same computers sample engine performance and emissions, perfecting both such that horsepower per cubic inch easily exceeds the power ratios in 1960s muscle cars, all the while achieving fuel mileage never before seen. Those computers also control the transmission and brakes, watch the air in your tire pressure-monitoring system (TPMS), and manage connectivity from your car to its cell phone and then to the cellular network.

With this kind of frugal use of computing power across functionalities, what could go wrong?

Where Embedded Systems Fail

In the first half of 2013, Nissan, Honda, and Subaru have all announced recalls for faulty embedded systems and sensors. Failed sensors trigger premature airbag deployment or hard braking assist (acceptable only during emergency stops). For Subaru, the remote-start fob started cars on its own—nothing anyone wants with a car parked in a home's attached garage.

In 2005, Toyota had a problem with its Prius hybrid cars, triggering a recall of more than 150,000 automobiles. Code errors in the software could cause the Prius to stall unexpectedly. Five years later, unintended acceleration in some Toyota cars led to a massive investigation of the embedded systems. Only after a deep and costly review of the electronic control systems was the problem blamed on the vehicle floor mats. This result shows such concern over electronic systems that the first step is to prove them innocent before reviewing other, more likely causes.

That same year, 2010, was a banner year for interest in automotive hacking resistance. Researchers at the University of California San Diego and the University of Washington's joint Center for Automotive Embedded Systems Security (CAESS) released a document called "Experimental Security Analysis of a Modern Automobile." Plugging into the Onboard Diagnostics II port (OBD-II), the researchers found it was possible to flood the automobile's embedded network and do anything from engaging brakes to locking doors. The instrument panel cluster could even be controlled to the point of displaying arbitrary information.

Other studies, performed by other groups, showed that CD files could be embedded with computer code. Playing the CD attacked the embedded computer systems, sometimes with a technique as simple as flooding the system with variable data. Dumping excess traffic to the embedded network through a Bluetooth connection to a cell phone would stop the engine.

Playing music can hack an embedded system?

There are a lot of allegations, including stories of the TPMS being used to shut down engines by flooding the network with counterfeit traffic from fake tire sensors. Are these stories true? CNN offers a very convincing video that seems to show the thieves using a mysterious device to unlock cars at will, and this is something new, right?

How to Interpret the Risks

Long ago, I read a story about hacker software for a Palm Pilot. The software intercepted the communications between the car owner's key fob and the system that controlled door locks. At that time, car communications were a non-changing signal—the perfect setup for a replay attack. Hacking embedded systems that control door locks is today's technique. It isn't a sign that embedded systems are less secure than past systems. Decades before key fobs existed, doors were opened with "slim jims" and coat hangers. Thieves hammered screwdrivers into trunk locks until the whole assembly could be rotated to open the trunk. Today's embedded systems are far more secure than past systems.

That said, the ability to flood the embedded system network and cause outages is a genuine cause for concern. As mentioned earlier, vendors will put their products onto the Internet sooner or later. Will you tolerate your washer stopping mid-cycle because someone performed a "ping flood" denial-of-service attack on its network connection?

As manufacturers adopt generic embedded systems to replace past proprietary designs, it will be easier to write malware that works against many products. In this world of products joining the Internet and sharing your information with vendors, possibly opening them to attack, you still can do a few things to secure your embedded systems.

Why Securing Your Embedded System Is Crucial

What can you hope to do to secure your embedded systems? First, start by keeping a historical perspective:

  • Remain realistic despite hysteria. I remember early electronic fuel-injected Volkswagens that had inadequate shielding, making it possible for the engine to stall when passing through microwave and radio streams. Other cars needed special shields over the ignition points to avoid interfering with radio reception. Remember this: Despite a lot of testing, automotive advances often create problems that show up after the purchase.

    Car security research will find subtle vulnerabilities. However, in the same way that traditional computer systems must be hardened against Internet attacks, automotive embedded systems can be and will be hardened—once manufacturers have accepted the necessity.
  • Do the math. Embedded systems increase costs as they increase benefits. To justify the expense of better security, consumers must recognize the growing "smart" content in every product. Search the Internet for vulnerabilities in your favorite products. Write to the manufacturers and ask them to make product security a priority. (But determine you much you're willing to pay for better security before insisting it be installed on your next widget.)
  • Forgo Internet/Bluetooth connectivity if you're concerned. My home DVD player isn't Internet-attached. (Streaming movies can be expensive in rural Illinois.) Should you link your car to automobile monitoring systems? Think about these questions: Are you concerned that the car's "black box" might give your auto maker misleading information about your responses in the final seconds before an accident? Do you worry that your cell phone's Bluetooth connection to the car will leave it open to hackers? In these cases, buy a cheap hands-free cell phone system that excludes any car connectivity. (You have more options than you realize.)

    Returning to "remaining realistic." For more than a decade, laptop computer operating systems and applications have "phoned home" regarding your experiences, your mix of software, your computer hardware, computer configurations—including your IP address (shudder)—and more. So far, we haven't had the "privacy meltdown" that some people predicted.
  • Put Internet-connected embedded systems behind a firewall. If possible, connect your devices and appliances to your wired, firewall-enhanced router. Most of us use wireless networking, so you'll probably need to connect your devices and appliances to secured wireless networks. Let your secured systems reach out to the Internet, while denying the Internet the right to connect to them ad hoc. If you must allow the Internet to reach your systems, such as for Help Desk support, research how to move those systems to your router's "demilitarized zone" (DMZ), so that an attack on your DMZ device can't spread to all your devices. Many wireless routers have a feature that keeps devices separate from each other, but enabling this feature disables music sharing and other network features. You must decide what level of security you really need.
  • Recognize the growing computer content in many devices. Can you spot an embedded system? Is your thermometer with an outdoor wireless sensor an embedded system? Sure is! Now consider your embedded system concerns. Are you worried that some hacker might display an incorrect temperature? Probably not; after all, the impact of that hack seems minor.
  • Consider the "Internet of things" and be ready for big benefits. The "Internet of things" posits a world of pervasive computing—often embedded computers—woven into our clothing, injected into our eyeglasses, worn as jewelry, and so on. Some people fear the impact of having personal details of our lives recorded (and maybe relayed) by devices. What if a hacker threatens to reveal your love of pornography to your friends? Would you pay a "ransom" to keep this from happening? This is one of the scenarios raised.

    Now back to "remaining realistic." Your video rentals are tracked. That type of "surveillance" has been more than just a threat for a long time. Nothing is secret, and this problem predates embedded systems. Adopting the "Internet of things" may not be the threat that some people speculate will materialize.

Dystopia or Utopia?

Many dire predictions have been made regarding the "new" vulnerabilities in embedded systems. Some predict Orwellian consequences of Big Business and Big Government accessing all our information. Others predict strange and unusual infrastructure failures, as hackers deny services via exotic commands that impersonate control centers.

Too often, people forget the long history of success with earlier control systems, and even with traditional computer systems that utilize encryption to good effect. People overlook the wide advances in automotive longevity, performance, and fuel mileage gains—focusing instead on improving TPMS security at any expense. Finally, too many of us forget the many vulnerabilities and problems found with early systems, now replaced with better, stronger systems.

The problem isn't technology; it's misuse of the information that technology makes available. Laws and regulations like the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) can control the open and careless flow of information. Actually, that's the secret answer: simply regulating against misuse. Whether we inherit the benefits—or the totalitarian monitoring—of embedded systems is up to us. By researching the issues, working with manufacturers, and deciding which connectivity models we'll support; by supporting new and improved laws limiting misuse; and by following the simple six ideas listed here, we can better secure our embedded systems in the future.

  • + Share This
  • 🔖 Save To Your Account

InformIT Promotional Mailings & Special Offers

I would like to receive exclusive offers and hear about products from InformIT and its family of brands. I can unsubscribe at any time.

Overview


Pearson Education, Inc., 221 River Street, Hoboken, New Jersey 07030, (Pearson) presents this site to provide information about products and services that can be purchased through this site.

This privacy notice provides an overview of our commitment to privacy and describes how we collect, protect, use and share personal information collected through this site. Please note that other Pearson websites and online products and services have their own separate privacy policies.

Collection and Use of Information


To conduct business and deliver products and services, Pearson collects and uses personal information in several ways in connection with this site, including:

Questions and Inquiries

For inquiries and questions, we collect the inquiry or question, together with name, contact details (email address, phone number and mailing address) and any other additional information voluntarily submitted to us through a Contact Us form or an email. We use this information to address the inquiry and respond to the question.

Online Store

For orders and purchases placed through our online store on this site, we collect order details, name, institution name and address (if applicable), email address, phone number, shipping and billing addresses, credit/debit card information, shipping options and any instructions. We use this information to complete transactions, fulfill orders, communicate with individuals placing orders or visiting the online store, and for related purposes.

Surveys

Pearson may offer opportunities to provide feedback or participate in surveys, including surveys evaluating Pearson products, services or sites. Participation is voluntary. Pearson collects information requested in the survey questions and uses the information to evaluate, support, maintain and improve products, services or sites, develop new products and services, conduct educational research and for other purposes specified in the survey.

Contests and Drawings

Occasionally, we may sponsor a contest or drawing. Participation is optional. Pearson collects name, contact information and other information specified on the entry form for the contest or drawing to conduct the contest or drawing. Pearson may collect additional personal information from the winners of a contest or drawing in order to award the prize and for tax reporting purposes, as required by law.

Newsletters

If you have elected to receive email newsletters or promotional mailings and special offers but want to unsubscribe, simply email information@informit.com.

Service Announcements

On rare occasions it is necessary to send out a strictly service related announcement. For instance, if our service is temporarily suspended for maintenance we might send users an email. Generally, users may not opt-out of these communications, though they can deactivate their account information. However, these communications are not promotional in nature.

Customer Service

We communicate with users on a regular basis to provide requested services and in regard to issues relating to their account we reply via email or phone in accordance with the users' wishes when a user submits their information through our Contact Us form.

Other Collection and Use of Information


Application and System Logs

Pearson automatically collects log data to help ensure the delivery, availability and security of this site. Log data may include technical information about how a user or visitor connected to this site, such as browser type, type of computer/device, operating system, internet service provider and IP address. We use this information for support purposes and to monitor the health of the site, identify problems, improve service, detect unauthorized access and fraudulent activity, prevent and respond to security incidents and appropriately scale computing resources.

Web Analytics

Pearson may use third party web trend analytical services, including Google Analytics, to collect visitor information, such as IP addresses, browser types, referring pages, pages visited and time spent on a particular site. While these analytical services collect and report information on an anonymous basis, they may use cookies to gather web trend information. The information gathered may enable Pearson (but not the third party web trend services) to link information with application and system log data. Pearson uses this information for system administration and to identify problems, improve service, detect unauthorized access and fraudulent activity, prevent and respond to security incidents, appropriately scale computing resources and otherwise support and deliver this site and its services.

Cookies and Related Technologies

This site uses cookies and similar technologies to personalize content, measure traffic patterns, control security, track use and access of information on this site, and provide interest-based messages and advertising. Users can manage and block the use of cookies through their browser. Disabling or blocking certain cookies may limit the functionality of this site.

Do Not Track

This site currently does not respond to Do Not Track signals.

Security


Pearson uses appropriate physical, administrative and technical security measures to protect personal information from unauthorized access, use and disclosure.

Children


This site is not directed to children under the age of 13.

Marketing


Pearson may send or direct marketing communications to users, provided that

  • Pearson will not use personal information collected or processed as a K-12 school service provider for the purpose of directed or targeted advertising.
  • Such marketing is consistent with applicable law and Pearson's legal obligations.
  • Pearson will not knowingly direct or send marketing communications to an individual who has expressed a preference not to receive marketing.
  • Where required by applicable law, express or implied consent to marketing exists and has not been withdrawn.

Pearson may provide personal information to a third party service provider on a restricted basis to provide marketing solely on behalf of Pearson or an affiliate or customer for whom Pearson is a service provider. Marketing preferences may be changed at any time.

Correcting/Updating Personal Information


If a user's personally identifiable information changes (such as your postal address or email address), we provide a way to correct or update that user's personal data provided to us. This can be done on the Account page. If a user no longer desires our service and desires to delete his or her account, please contact us at customer-service@informit.com and we will process the deletion of a user's account.

Choice/Opt-out


Users can always make an informed choice as to whether they should proceed with certain services offered by InformIT. If you choose to remove yourself from our mailing list(s) simply visit the following page and uncheck any communication you no longer want to receive: www.informit.com/u.aspx.

Sale of Personal Information


Pearson does not rent or sell personal information in exchange for any payment of money.

While Pearson does not sell personal information, as defined in Nevada law, Nevada residents may email a request for no sale of their personal information to NevadaDesignatedRequest@pearson.com.

Supplemental Privacy Statement for California Residents


California residents should read our Supplemental privacy statement for California residents in conjunction with this Privacy Notice. The Supplemental privacy statement for California residents explains Pearson's commitment to comply with California law and applies to personal information of California residents collected in connection with this site and the Services.

Sharing and Disclosure


Pearson may disclose personal information, as follows:

  • As required by law.
  • With the consent of the individual (or their parent, if the individual is a minor)
  • In response to a subpoena, court order or legal process, to the extent permitted or required by law
  • To protect the security and safety of individuals, data, assets and systems, consistent with applicable law
  • In connection the sale, joint venture or other transfer of some or all of its company or assets, subject to the provisions of this Privacy Notice
  • To investigate or address actual or suspected fraud or other illegal activities
  • To exercise its legal rights, including enforcement of the Terms of Use for this site or another contract
  • To affiliated Pearson companies and other companies and organizations who perform work for Pearson and are obligated to protect the privacy of personal information consistent with this Privacy Notice
  • To a school, organization, company or government agency, where Pearson collects or processes the personal information in a school setting or on behalf of such organization, company or government agency.

Links


This web site contains links to other sites. Please be aware that we are not responsible for the privacy practices of such other sites. We encourage our users to be aware when they leave our site and to read the privacy statements of each and every web site that collects Personal Information. This privacy statement applies solely to information collected by this web site.

Requests and Contact


Please contact us about this Privacy Notice or if you have any requests or questions relating to the privacy of your personal information.

Changes to this Privacy Notice


We may revise this Privacy Notice through an updated posting. We will identify the effective date of the revision in the posting. Often, updates are made to provide greater clarity or to comply with changes in regulatory requirements. If the updates involve material changes to the collection, protection, use or disclosure of Personal Information, Pearson will provide notice of the change through a conspicuous notice on this site or other appropriate way. Continued use of the site after the effective date of a posted revision evidences acceptance. Please contact us if you have questions or concerns about the Privacy Notice or any objection to any revisions.

Last Update: November 17, 2020