VP Innovation at Axway, Co-founder at Vordel

Mark O'Neill

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When Gunnar Peterson and I wrote about the security considerations for Internet of Things, one of the key items was patching ("Vulnerabilities will be found in IOT systems, but how will they be patched? IOT systems require management systems for patching and versioning"). The problem is that Internet of Things devices are often difficult to update. There isn’t an equivalent of a “Patch Tuesday” for a wristband, or a Wi-Fi-enabled smart meter. Many devices do not have an auto-update mechanism, or may be constrained by bandwidth or processing power. Rather than patching the device itself, patches will often have to be applied upstream as “virtual patches”. A Gateway is the ideal point to apply these virtual patches.

Heartbleed made this device all the more important. This week, in an article entitled "It’s Crazy What Can Be Hacked Thanks to Heartbleed", Robert McMillan covers the work of Nicholas Weaver at UC Berkeley. Weaver has been investigating the vulnerability of devices such as programmable thermostats, home routers, and (ironically) home firewalls to Heartbleed. The problem is that many of these devices are difficult to patch.

He writes "The bad news is that many of the devices that can be hacked can only be updated manually", and "In other words, the Internet of Things needs a patch".

Virtual patches are the key here. They allow patches to be applied upstream from the Internet-of-Things device itself, applying a "wrapper" layer. Virtual patches are also something I also discussed in BBC articles in the context of vulnerabilities in power station control systems and in protecting Windows XP systems now that patches are no longer provided by Microsoft.

By enabling virtual patches to be applied, security gateways are an important piece of a mitigation strategy for vulnerabilities such as Heartbleed. They are the upstream point at which you can apply security mitigation, when devices themselves may be difficult or impossible to patch. This is why at Axway, we provide gateways for Web Services and API traffic, gateways for B2B and file-transfer, and Gateways for email and file sharing. Heartbleed will not be the last vulnerability to impact the Internet of Things in this way, but by applying a virtual patching strategy at the Gateway layer, security mitigation is possible.

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Mark O'Neill is VP Innovation at Axway - API and Identity. Previously he was CTO and co-founder at Vordel, which was acquired by Axway. A regular speaker at industry conferences and a contributor to SOA World Magazine and Cloud Computing Journal, Mark holds a degree in mathematics and psychology from Trinity College Dublin and graduate qualifications in neural network programming from Oxford University.