How Will Terrorists Use the Internet of Things? The Justice Department Is Trying to Figure That Out

Orhan Cam/

As the business of connected devices explodes, DOJ joins other agencies in evaluating the national-security risks.

By 2020, there will be anywhere from 20 billion to 50 billion internet-connected devices, including about one in five cars and or trucks, according to industry forecasts. That’s big business for outfits that sell data or streaming services. For the Justice Department, it’s 50 billion potential problems.

“In our division, we’ve just started a group looking at nothing but the internet of things.” John P. Carlin, the U.S. assistant attorney general for national security, told the Intelligence and National Security Alliance on Thursday at the group’s annual summit.

“There isn’t a set number of participants for the team and we are going to pursue this initiative within our existing appropriation and budget,” Justice Department spokesperson Marc Raimondi told Defense One.

Carlin framed the issue as directly related to next-generation terrorism.

“Look at the terrorist attack in Nice,” he said. “If our trucks are running in an automated fashion—great efficiencies, great safety, on the one hand—but if we don’t think about how terrorists could exploit that on the front end, and not after they take a truck and run it through a crowd of civilians, we’ll regret it.”

“We made that mistake once when we moved all of our data, when we digitally connected it and didn’t focus on how … terrorists and spies could exploit it,” he said, referring broadly to the growing abilities of state and nonstate actors to steal data and put it to nefarious use. “We’re playing catch-up,” he said. “We can’t do that again when it comes to the internet of things, actual missiles, trucks and cars.”

But there are already thousands of vulnerable vehicles on today’s roads.

Computer researchers Chris Valazek and Charlie Miller have been demonstrating how to hack various car models for years, including a famous 2013 "Today" show segment, and a 2015 demonstration in which they took control of a Jeep traveling along a highway at 70 mph with Wired writer Andy Greenberg inside. Miller has calculated that as many as 471,000 existing vehicles have some exploitable computer vulnerability.

Of course, Justice isn’t the only government agency sweating over the internet of things.

In 2012, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency launched a program called the High Assurance Cyber Military Systems, or HACMS, to fix vulnerabilities that could pervade future internet of things devices. Two years later, Dawn Meyerriecks, the deputy director of the CIA’s directorate of science and technology, noted that “smart refrigerators have been used in distributed denial of service attacks,” and cited smart fluorescent LEDs that “are communicating that they need to be replaced but are also being hijacked for other things.”

The National Security Agency, too, is looking to the internet of things… for completely different reasons. When Defense One sat down with Rick Ledgett, the deputy director of NSA, back in June and asked him if the internet of things presented “a security nightmare or a signals intelligence bonanza,” he answered simply, “both.”