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Building security into IoT devices: the new potential for security integration

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IoT devices, which transmit and receive data and commands over the world’s universal network, are exposed to a far greater variety and number of threats than earlier products that supported machine-to-machine (M2M) communication, typically over a closed, private network.

The STRIDE threat classification model, originally developed by Microsoft, lists the potential security threats an IoT device or user of that device faces: Spoofing; Tampering; Repudiation; Information disclosure; Denial of service; and Elevation of privilege.

The security functions and resources required to protect an IoT device against these security threats are available in specialised discrete ICs such as:

  • a secure element – an SoC combining an MCU with on-board cryptographic capabilities, secure memory and interfaces
  • secure non-volatile memory ICs, which typically feature a cryptographic engine for pairing the memory securely to authorised devices

However, the use of such discrete ICs in IoT devices increases their component count, complexity and bill-of-materials cost compared to designs that use the integrated security capabilities of the host MCU (or in some cases an applications processor). The crucial question for IoT device designers, then, is whether the capabilities of the host MCU are sufficient to counter the threats described in the STRIDE model.

Layers of protection 
IoT devices are vulnerable by virtue of their networked operation. A connected wristband monitoring a patient’s heartbeat and blood oxygen levels, for instance, might continually send sensitive private data over a wireless link to a medical application hosted by a cloud service provider.

It is useful to think of the vulnerability in this type of device – and therefore the protection that is required – in terms of layers. For example, one layer is the personal area network connection, typically a Bluetooth Low Energy radio link to a smartphone or tablet with which the wristband is paired.

An extension of this layer might be the Wi-Fi link provided by the smartphone or tablet to a home router or gateway. The second layer might be the cloud platform, such as Microsoft’s Azure or Amazon’s AWS; and the third is the application itself running in the cloud. Further layers can be defined, depending on the architecture.

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