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The Internet of Things: When Vending Machines Attack
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The Internet of Things: When Vending Machines Attack - Executive Leadership Articles

The Internet of Things: When Vending Machines Attack

Executive Leadership Articles

The Internet of Things: When Vending Machines Attack

Reports this week tell of a large university campus whose network was crippled by a distributed denial of service attack (DDoS) with an interesting twist. DDoS attacks usually come from external sources sending thousands of requests to servers of specific websites. The website’s servers can’t handle the load, so the website is brought to its knees, shutting itself down or slowing to a crawl. Variations of this have those thousands of external requests coming in to a web host, in which case the websites hosted are brought down, sometimes just a few sites but often numbering in the thousands, depending on the size of the hosting company.

Last October 21, a major internet switchboard was attacked instead, causing massive slow-downs for websites using the switchboard, and the attackers were connected smart devices such as lightbulbs and webcams taken over by malware that turned them into little bots requesting info in ways they were never meant to.

Like the notorious lightbulb attack on Dyn DNS last October, the university DDoS involved smart devices, but rather than direct the devices’ attention to specific targets in order to shut them down, the massive number of website requests by soda machines and lighting systems was meant to slow down their own network. Working every fifteen minutes on massive numbers of seafood-related search requests, the hacked devices made legitimate traffic through the campus network impossible. The attack on the school’s network came from its own devices.

The methods for both IoT takeovers were similar. Devices with weak passwords were hacked. The malware that detected and compromised the devices then changed the passwords and gave the devices new instructions to conduct those seafood requests.

The lesson about keeping IoT devices secure with good passwords is clear, and it’s been made before. But there is something else here that asks to be considered. Remember when home wifi was pretty new? You could drive around certain neighborhoods and find plenty of unprotected home networks and borrow some bandwidth for your laptop. Home routers came out of the box unprotected back then, and although setting them up with passwords was supremely easy, a great number of people didn’t consider it necessary to protect their networks, or they just didn’t know their stuff well enough to set passwords.

This has mostly changed. The default setup on routers is password-protected, and it’s very rare to find an open home network anywhere, making things worse for freeloaders but better for families and households. We’ve all grown up a little about wifi, and we’ve traded in a small amount of ease-of-use for a great deal of protection, without compromising all the benefits home wifi gives us.

With connected IoT devices, we are about where we were when we first set up those private networks in our homes fifteen years ago. There are going to be mishaps, perhaps a lot of them, with our iPad-enabled garage-door openers and our phone-operated TVs. But universities can really use centralized, responsive lighting systems that save money while serving better, and self-reporting soda machines are better for their providers and customers. No, of course we don’t need these conveniences, but they are so easy to install, and combined, they can make universities, office buildings, neighborhoods, and cities better for everyone.

So it is worth it in the long run for us all to demand best practices from our IoT experience, and not to wait on the sidelines while others get a jump on the benefits. With just a little more care, and a little more training for our hands-on users, we can be testing the limits of this newfangled IoT thing, discovering new ways to put them to use and new benefits for those who need them most. Let’s not throw the water out with the Internet-connected water cooler; let’s instead proceed with due responsibility and a determination not to let the bad guys mess up our interconnected lives.


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The Internet of Things: When Vending Machines Attack - Executive Leadership Articles

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