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How To Keep Hackers from Causing Chaos at the Gas Pumps—and 9 Other FBI Warnings

The FBI and Department of Homeland Security just issued new warnings about everyday objects that stay connected to an unsecured internet.

The FBI and Department of Homeland Security have issued alerts about, in essence, the modern Internet. 

Their public service announcements concern security risks posed by the so-called Internet of Things, or IoT, a situation where everyday objects connect to a network. 

Researchers this summer proved that connected items can endanger people driving cars and wearing pacemakers. The Defense Department secretary last week mentioned the inventors of the Internet have been working on security fixes for IoT.

But until those technologies are rolled out, the FBI and DHS are offering some pointers.

First, the FBI names the following 10 things as examples of IoT devices: 

  1. Automated devices that remotely or automatically adjust lighting or HVAC
  2. Security systems, such as security alarms or Wi-Fi cameras, including video monitors used in nursery and daycare settings
  3. Medical devices, such as wireless heart monitors or insulin dispensers
  4. Thermostats
  5. Wearables, such as fitness devices
  6. Lighting modules that activate or deactivate lights
  7. Smart appliances, such as smart refrigerators and TVs
  8. Office equipment, such as printers
  9. Entertainment devices to control music or television from a mobile device
  10. Fuel monitoring systems

Some of the potential horror stories depicted by the FBI:

  • Cyber criminals can take advantage of security gaps in the configuration of surveillance video cameras used by private businesses or built-in cameras on baby monitors. “Systems not properly secured can be located and breached by actors who wish to stream live feed on the Internet for anyone to see.”
  • Criminals can exploit unsecured wireless connections for "garage doors, thermostats and lighting," among other automated systems. Those security holes can let crooks "remotely monitor the owner’s habits and network traffic," as well as "easily exploit these devices to open doors, turn off security systems, record audio and video, and gain access to sensitive data."
  • Unprotected home health care devices provide avenues for bad guys to glean personal or medical information stored there, as well as "possibly change the coding controlling the dispensing of medicines or health data collection."
  • Monitoring systems on gas pumps that are connected to the Internet can be tampered with. Nefarious individuals could make the pump register incorrect levels, “allowing a refueling vehicle to dangerously overfill the tanks, creating a fire hazard.”

People using one of the above things, or other network-infused objects, are advised to: 

  • Place the device on a separate protected network
  • Disable "Universal Plug And Play" settings that allow an item to automatically connect to another device on the Internet
  • "Consider whether IoT devices are ideal for their intended purpose"
  • Purchase IoT devices from manufacturers with a good track record on network security
  • When vendors make them available, update devices with security patches
  • Identify any passwords and Wi-Fi connections to the device and change the passwords; only allow the device to operate on a home network with a secured Wi-Fi router
  • When changing the password, do not use common words, simple phrases or passwords containing easily found personal information, such as important dates or pet names
  • Make sure patients prescribed medical devices capable of remote operation are informed about the risk they could be targeted

A military agency that gave birth to the Internet, and by default, IoT, has been researching patches, Defense Secretary Ash Carter says.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in 2011 launched a program to help make “the code behind the physical control systems of an airplane or self-driving car,” for instance, “become mathematically, provably unhackable," Carter said at a future technology forum hosted by the agency.

"DARPA’s already made some of that source code openly available online – it can give the Internet of Things a critical foundation of cybersecurity, which it’s going to need," he said.

By 2020 there will be 250 million Internet-connected vehicles on the road, according to Gartner. A Wired journalist a few months ago had private researchers remotely kill the transmission of a Jeep on a St. Louis highway -- while he was sitting in the driver's seat.

Meanwhile, University of South Alabama students demonstrated the fatal dangers of network-synched health devices by manipulating a pacemaker in a medical-grade human simulator, Motherboard reports.

"The simulator had a pacemaker so we could speed the heart rate up, we could slow it down," said Mike Jacobs, director of the university's simulations program. "If it had a defibrillator, which most do, we could have shocked it repeatedly. If it was the intent, we could definitely cause harm to the patient. It's not just a pacemaker, we could do it with an insulin pump, a number of things that would cause life-threatening injuries or death."

Some industry groups, such as CompTIA, expect federal agencies will try to contain privacy and security threats in the IoT by adapting regulations created for electronic health records, the digital collection of financial information, and other data-intensive activities.