I googled our company name. Then I found this:
Auftrag means order and the obfuscated parts contain our full company name, the Chief Engineer’s name, the URL of a vendor we ordered material from recently, invoice total, and a comment like The client said we should…
The now inaccessible URL had pointed to a comma-separated text related to statistics for orders. Obviously they had put company-internal data on an internet-facing system without knowing it. If you are familiar with the details of the URL and keywords you can actively search for such systems on the internet.
This is in essence what Google Hacking is about – here is a detailed manual, a presentation from a security conference. The infamous list of orders is used as a prime example on p.10.
If you wonder why this is called Google and Heating (2). This was on Google and heating, too, though there is not much relation to the topics covered.
Search engine Shodan takes this a step further: It allows for searching specifically for devices who are listening for incoming connections on the internet. Analyzing the standardized headers of the responses tells you if this is a traffic light, web cam, an internet router … or some home owner’s heating system.
These are search results for ADSL modems used by a large telco.
Those devices have a web server listening on HTTP. Not necessarily an issue if passwords have been set, there are no known vulnerabilities, and in case there is those systems are updated. As an end user you would not have a chance to interfere here as the modems are managed by the provider.
But it definitely should not look like this.
This is the passwords page of of data logger (BL-NET by Technische Alternative) for a heater accessible via the internet, showing that none of the passwords for guests, normal and expert user had been set. You could maliciously change control parameters or set passwords and lock the owner out.
But in contrast to a provider’s modem you need to take action to make such loggers and their web interfaces available on the internet. Vulnerabilities aside, any typical internet router (a device doing Network Address Translation) does not allow unsolicited incoming connections from the the internet to a device on the local network, that is behind the provider’s access device and/or your router. Only traffic recognized as the response to an outgoing request, such as browsing a public web pages, will be relayed by the router. In order to show off your heater’s performance to your friend you need to open up your router’s firewall and configure a rule for so-called port forwarding.
The problem with this approach is that some people don’t know exactly what they are doing (see inquiries via forums along the lines: I have no idea at all what VPN, TCP/IP, ports, DNS etc. means – but could you explain me briefly how to access my heater from the internet?), and there might be lots of running systems never touched again, once configured by the computer-savvy friend.
Then there might be hidden risks related to undetected vulnerabilities in the embedded web servers used. A German vendor of heating systems had caused a stir last year: Their clients’ systems had been accessible from the internet via port-forwarding. Their naming conventions for the dyndns names of such hosts could easily be guess – so attackers could find the systems. Passwords have been set; but sending a specifically crafted URL to the device you could force the web server to respond with the list of all passwords in clear text. The vendor reacted quickly and referred the issue to the supplier of the underlying control software – which was used with larger and more critical systems and residential heating. It turned out that the software vendor had never recommended to use the system in that way – only protected by passwords, but a VPN tunnel should be provided instead – wrapping the insecure traffic within a channel equipped with stronger protection. Adding a VPN is a major change and required the installation of a new physical module at clients’ site.
Apart from opening up your network up to the internet or VPNs there is another class of solutions to the Internet of Things issue: Things may actively connect to a server on the internet, and this server will relay or mediate the connection. I have written about Things ‘phoning home’ and how to sniff the traffic before, and I add some more links at the end of this post. If the owner of the thing is given some control over the communication I still think it is the best option.
We now use such a Thing as our latest data logger for our heat pump system.
That’s the Thing – C.M.I., Control and Monitoring Interface – here is my failed attempt at innovative tech product photography:
(The usual disclaimer: I don’t make money from reselling or recommending products, I just like them. Vendors beware, I might change my mind anytime.)
It does not get better if I try to capture The Things in their natural habitats – CMI to the left, BL-NET in the middle, and a simple ethernet switch to the right.
This is the ‘data center’. The control system (UVR1611) is in the ‘boiler room’, connected via CAN bus (blue connectors) to both loggers. We operate them in parallel, on the same CAN bus – for ‘research purposes’ and fun, though this is discouraged by Technische Alternative. Both loggers are connected to the local network.
We haven’t opened our firewall for BL-NET but CMI is allowed to make an outbound connection to the vendor’s portal https://cmi.ta.co.at/. You are required to create a user at this portal (that is running on amazon’s cloud BTW), and associate your CMI’s unique serial number and key with your user online. Other portal users may be given permission to view or manage your device – this is how we do online support of clients’ devices. It is not possible to allow anonymous users to view your current data and hydraulic layout.
The CMI is keeping a permanent outbound connection to the portal server who relays ‘incoming’ requests that technically aren’t incoming.
What I find important is:
You can access the device locally and directly, too. All your logged data are stored on an SD card – the slot and the blue card are visible in the photos. You can turn off the device’s connection to the portal and perhaps only turn it on if you required support.
Unfortunately this cannot be said for any appliance that sends data to a portal. Actually, this article had in part been triggered by my researching the data logging capabilities of inverters of photovoltaic generators. Some of those send data to their clouds while giving the user no local access to the data at all.
Ambitious users build tools (e.g. running on Raspberry Pi) that intercept and store the traffic that was intended for the portal. A user reported that his battery did not work for weeks after the inverter vendor had upgraded the firmware. The new firmware used different temperature thresholds when determining if the battery was operating normally – and decided that the battery was much too cold. It took some time to persuade the vendor to restore the previous version of the firmware.
Remote firmware upgrade is subject to heated discussions, and can cause legal issues. Vendors of smart meters have to to separate the software that is required for ‘features’ – to be upgraded later, following ever changing standards and advances in technology – and the software associated with the data used in billing – subject to official calibration.
In case the vendor of the modems shown in the Shodan screenshot detects a vulnerability we would probably happy if they patch it immediately. Our favorite Things can be updated automatically and it went well so far.
Security Statement for Teamviewer – which also happens to be the software I am using for remote connections to clients’ computer systems and for remote meetings.
The Internet of Things, and how those Things phone home. An accessible and brief explanation of the different ways things allow for connections leveraged by a server on the internet.
Peer to Peer – Hole Punching – more detailed explanations.
Peer-to-Peer Communication Across Network Address Translators – even more detailed explanations, similar to this RFC by the same authors.