Uncle Sam Wants Vendors to Supply Stronger Cybersecurity in Internet-Connected Products


When Steve Rogers—better known as Captain America—was thawed after 67 years, he recruited the help of the internet to catch up on decades of missed history and cultural references. Captain America exclaimed that the internet is “so helpful,” but it is also riddled with malware and other risks with every click. The explosion of the internet of things (IoT) means that the cybersecurity threats lurking online can target consumers—including Uncle Sam—not only on computers but through mobile devices, cameras, and even smart refrigerators. 

Federal employees often use work-issued mobile phones to conduct official business and share sensitive documents. Now, a bi-partisan group of Senators want to make sure that Uncle Sam buys only the safest IoT devices. 

Senate Cybersecurity Caucus co-chairs Sens. Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), along with Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Steve Daines (R-Mont.) recently introduced a bill that would require contractors that sell IoT devices to the government to make sure that the devices don’t include automatic default passwords that can’t be changed, and are free of known security vulnerabilities. The bill also would encourage federal contractors to work together to disclose vulnerabilities they discover. 

The bill is gaining support from IoT industry stakeholders. Craig Spiezle, founder of the Online Trust Alliance, said in a statement that “having baseline minimum standards is good because government agencies don’t have to reinvent the wheel when it comes to securing critical infrastructure.” Spiezle said that the bill “can be implemented not just on the federal level but for state and local governments that don’t have the expertise about how to secure IoT devices that are connected to both critical and non-critical infrastructure.” 

The threats posed by IoT-related malware are real. Last year, hackers launched a distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack, leaving millions of people without access to popular websites such as Twitter Inc., Spotify Ltd., Reddit and the New York Times Co.  DDoS attacks can be achieved through a number of ways, but a common method involves hijacking IoT devices and making them into botnets that flood target servers. 

In the case of the October 2016 DDoS attack, hackers hijacked millions of webcams by guessing default passwords. According to a recent report by cybersecurity company Checkmarx Ltd., the list of vulnerabilities in webcams “goes on and on, showing that an attacker simply needs to take their pick of attacking style, and there will likely be an option ready.” The company warned that another major security incident is “just waiting to happen.”

If the law changes to force companies chasing the opportunity to sell IoT devices to the feds to adopt stronger cybersecurity measures, it will have a positive impact for individual consumers as well. 

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