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Senators Want a Hack-Proof Internet of Government Things

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Internet-connected smart devices purchased by the federal government would have to meet strict security standards under bipartisan legislation introduced Tuesday.

Those devices would have to accept software patches to remove vulnerabilities and allow users to change default passwords, according to the Internet of Things Cybersecurity Improvements Act.

They would also have to be free of known cybersecurity vulnerabilities, according to the legislation, though companies could receive a waiver in certain circumstances, including if the agency buying the device agrees to accept the vulnerability and can still use the device safely.

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Contractors would be required to speedily patch or repair connected devices they sold to federal agencies after new software vulnerabilities are discovered, according to the bill, which was sponsored by Sens. Mark Warner, D-Va., Cory Gardner, R-Colo., Ron Wyden, D-Wash., and Steve Daines, R-Mont.

Technology and security experts from Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society and the Atlantic Council think tank consulted on the bill, according to a press release.

Unlike laptops, smartphones and much popular commercial software, which are produced by well-established companies with a vested interest in maintaining the cybersecurity of their products, many IoT devices are produced by startups with less security expertise and that might go out of business during the product’s life cycle.

That raises the likelihood that hackable vulnerabilities in those products’ software code will go unfixed.

In certain cases, such as smart thermostats or connected cars, that presents a direct danger to the device owner if a malicious hacker decides to seize control of the device or hold it for ransom.

In other cases, the computing power in such devices can be co-opted by botnets, which are armies of zombie computers that can be hired to attack a target without their owners’ knowledge.

The Mirai botnet, which briefly shut down major websites including Netflix and The New York Times last year, was partly powered by internet of things devices.

Warner called these security lapses an “obvious market failure” in a press release accompanying the bill.  

“While I’m tremendously excited about the innovation and productivity that Internet of Things devices will unleash, I have long been concerned that too many Internet-connected devices are being sold without appropriate safeguards and protections in place,” Warner said.

The consultant Gartner predicts that 8.4 billion connected devices will be in use worldwide by the end of this year and that figure will reach 20.4 billion by 2020.

The IoT Act requires federal agencies to maintain a tally of all connected devices on their networks and directs the White House’s Office of Management and Budget to develop network security requirements specifically for connected devices.

The bill also directs the and direct the Homeland Security Department’s cybersecurity division to issue mandatory vulnerability disclosure guidelines for contractors that sell connected devices to the government.

Those disclosure guidelines should urge contractors to adopt programs that encourage ethical hackers to discover and disclose digital vulnerabilities in their products and to give those hackers clear guidance so they can be sure they won’t be targeted for copyright violations, the bill states.

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