Access Control & Iot Security: Challenges And Opportunities


IoT, the new attack vector

IoT attacks increased by over 217% in 2018. But a report with the provocative title of IoT CyberattacksAre The Norm, The Security Mindset Isn’t found that only 7% of organizations consider themselves equipped to tackle IoT security challenges. If that sounds wanting, consider this: 82% of organizations that develop IoT devices are concerned that the devices are not adequately secured from a cyberattack. Another study found that only 43% of enterprise IoT implementations prioritize security during the development/deployment process and only 38% involve security decision-makers in the process. Access control is considered being the first line of defence when it comes to IoT security.

Now, those broad trend indicators can possibly apply to any nascent technology. But there are two factors that make the IoT scenario particularly precarious. The first is the fact that, by all indications, the IoT is emerging as a potentially preferred attack vector for launching botnet assaults or even infiltrating enterprise networks. The second is that thus far, the IoT industry, from device developers to enterprise IT organizations, seems oblivious or ill-equipped to even secure access control and authentication, one of the fundamental components of any technology security strategy. 

Key IoT security challenges

However, an objective analysis of the scenario cannot but mention some of the unique characteristics of IoT networks that make security much more of a challenge than with other technology environments.  

First off, there’s the attack surface. An estimated 20 billion devices will be connected to the IoT by 2020, that’s 20 billion potential endpoint targets for malicious intent. A lot of these devices will be deployed in areas where it may be impossible or impractical to provide physical security, which makes it easier for bad actors to physically compromise devices on the network. Apart from the physical device, each IoT system comprises multiple edges and tiers including mobile applications, cloud and network interfaces, backend APIs, etc. Each one of these elements represents a potential vulnerability and just one unsecured component can be leveraged to compromise the entire network.  

Second there’s the sheer heterogeneity of IoT networks, with a range of different hardware and software stacks, governed by different access-control frameworks and with varying levels of privileged access. This means that there is no one size-fits-all approach to security and IoT security strategy will have to be designed around the characteristics of participating entities on each network. 

And finally, most IoT devices have limited power, storage, bandwidth and computational capabilities. So conventional security methods that are effective in other computing systems will be too complex to run on these constrained IoT devices. 

Device visibility precedes access control 

It is this distributed nature of IoT, where large volumes of devices communicate autonomously across multiple standards and protocols, that makes security more complex than it is in other more monolithic computing environments. That’s also why the IoT industry will need to reimagine conventional access control and authentication models and protocols and purpose them for this new paradigm. The right access control and authentication frameworks enables companies to identify IoT devices, isolate compromised nodes, ensure the integrity of data, and authenticate users and authorize different levels of data access. 

Since access control is the first point of contact between a device and the IoT network, these technologies must be able to recognize these devices in order to determine the next course of action. IoT devices have to be visible before access control and authentication can kick in and do its job. But most enterprises currently do not fare very well on the IoT device visibility score; a mere 5% keep an inventory of all managed IoT devices and only 8% have the capability to scan for IoT devices in real-time. But 46% are making it a priority in 2019 to enhance IoT discovery, isolation and access control, and that provides the starting point for a discussion on the merits of the different access control models available today. 

There are several types of access control models that can be considered for different IoT scenarios; from the basic ACL (Access Control List) model to the slightly more advanced MAC (Mandatory Access Control) model used primarily in military applications to the still-evolving and sophisticated Trust Attribute-Based Access Control model that builds on the ABAC (Attribute-Based Access Control) model to address requirement specific to IoT. 

Types of access control and authentication models 

But for the purposes of this article, we shall focus on more mainstream models that include RBAC (Role-Based Access Control), ABAC, CapBAC (Capability-Based Access Control) and UCON (Usage Control) model. 

RBAC: As the name suggests, this model manages resource access based on a hierarchy of permissions and rights assigned to specific roles. It allows multiple users to be grouped into roles that need access to the same resources. This approach can be useful in terms of limiting the number of access policies but may not be suitable for complex and dynamic IoT scenarios.  However, it is possible to extend RBAC to address fine-grained access control requirements of IoT though this could result in “role explosion” and create an administrative nightmare. 

The OrBAC (Organizational-Based Access Control) model was created to address issues related to RBAC and to make it more flexible. This model introduced new abstraction levels and the capability to include different contextual data such as historic, spatial and temporal data. There has also been a more recent evolution along this same trajectory with Smart OrBAC, a model designed for IoT environments that offers context-aware access control. 

ABAC: In this model, the emphasis shifts from roles to attributes on the consideration that access control may not always have to be determined by just identity and roles. Access requests in ABAC are evaluated against a range of attributes that define the user, the resource, the action, the context and the environment. This approach affords more dynamic access control capabilities as user access and the actions they can perform can change in real-time based on changes in the contextual attributes.  

ABAC provides more fine-grained and contextual access control that is more suited for IoT environments than the previous RBAC. It enables administrators to choose the best combination of a range of variables to build a robust and comprehensive set of access rules and policies. In fact, they can apply access control policy even without any prior knowledge of specific subjects by using data points that are more effective at indicating identity. The biggest challenge in this model could be to define a set of attributes that is acceptable across the board. 

CapBAC: Both RBAC and ABAC are models that use a centralized approach for access control, as in all authentication requests are processed by a central authority. Though these models have been applied in IoT-specific scenarios, achieving end-to-end security using a centralized architecture on a distributed system such as the IoT can be quite challenging. 

The CapBAC model is based on a distributed approach where “things” are able to make authorization decisions without having to defer to a centralized authority. This approach accounts for the unique characteristics of the IoT such as large volume of devices and limited device-level resources. Local environmental conditions are also a key consideration driving authorization decisions in this model, thus enabling context-aware access control that is critical to IoT. 

The capability, in this case, refers to a communicable, unforgeable token of authority that uniquely references an object as well as an associated set of access rights or privileges. Any process with the right key is granted the capability to interact with the referenced object as per the defined access rights. The biggest advantage of this model is that distributed devices do not have to manage complex sets of policies or carry out elaborate authentication protocols which makes it ideal for resource constrained IoT devices.

UCON: This an evolution of the traditional RBAC and ABAC models that introduces more flexibility in handling authorizations. In the traditional models, subject and object attributes can be changed either before the authorization request begins or after it is completed, but not when the subject has been granted permission to interact with an object. 

The UCON model introduces the concept of mutable attributes as well as two new decision factors, namely obligations and conditions, to go with authorizations. Mutable attributes are subject, object or contextual features that change their value as a consequence of usage of an object. By enabling continuous policy evaluation even when access is ongoing, UCON makes it possible to intervene as soon as a change in attribute value renders the execution right invalid.


Apart from these mainstream models, there are also several models, such as Extensible Access Control Markup Language (XACML), OAuth, and User-Managed Access (UMA) that are being studied for their applicability to IoT environments. But it is fair to say that the pace of development of IoT-specific access control models is seriously lagging development efforts in other areas such as connectivity options, standards and protocols. 

The other worrying aspect of the situation is that enterprise efforts to address IoT security concerns do not show the same urgency as those driving IoT deployments. All this even after a large scale malware attack in 2016 hijacked over 600,000 IoT devices using just around 60 default device credentials. A robust access control and authentication solution should help thwart an attack of that intensity. But then again, access control is just one component, a critical one nevertheless, of an integrated IoT security strategy. The emphasis has to be on security by design, though hardware, software and application development, rather than as an afterthought. And that has to happen immediately considering that the biggest IoT vulnerability according to the most recent top 10 list from the Open Web Application Security Project is Weak, Guessable, Or Hardcoded Passwords.