When I started out seven years ago, I was invited to take a look by the chairman of the organisation I was working for at the time, the National Microelectronics Institute. He was the CEO of an IoT company. I confess, I had not seen what the challenge was, so when he invited me—“John, go and take a look at IoT cyber-security”—I thought, “Why me? What’s the challenge? Isn’t this thing just a tiny part of a well-established body of knowledge about cyber-security, and why me?” My background is in electronic engineering—semiconductors.
As it turned out, when I went and had a look, it did not take me very long to realise, “My goodness, there is a real problem here.” I remember that at the time, a word I was using often was “egregious”. As effectively a student coming into it, trying to understand the space, I looked at the evolution of computing, broadly speaking. In one era, we had computers—desktops, laptops—and we connected them up, and the security around those was pretty dire at one point, but we started to get on top of that. It is not perfect now, but it is a lot better than it used to be, and we are all very familiar now with doing security updates. The next phase was mobile. Mobile was not quite as bad as the era of PCs. It was better—still a few problems, but much, much better. Then we got to this thing called IoT, and it took a complete reset. It was totally egregious.
I come from the world of embedded systems engineering, and one of the first events we did was a summit we ran at Bletchley Park in 2015, just to do a landscape piece—just to try to understand it from chips to systems, bringing in the regulator. We had a representative of what was then the Communications-Electronic Security Group, but is now the National Cyber Security Centre, to try to understand where the issues are. Part of the problem, I think, is what I learned there as an embedded systems guy. We had a pen tester there, and he said, “If a researcher comes knocking on your door, don’t turn him away.” I thought, “That is a really interesting thing. What is he talking about?” We were talking about vulnerability disclosure. For someone who comes from embedding air gap systems, security was not a thing. It does not take you long to realise that when you start connecting things up, suddenly you expand this thing called an attack surface. Attackers can come from many sources, not in proximity to the thing that you are working on. Suddenly, you have this massive attack surface.
The whole idea about IoT—internet of things—is about connecting things up, so by its very nature, you are vulnerable. These things can come at you from many angles. What does that mean? It means different things to different people. I tried to understand what this thing called security was about. I immersed myself in the security community and straight away I realised there were different groups. If people start talking to me about data, they are usually coming from a data security or information assurance-type background. If they talk to me about availability of systems—keeping systems up—they usually come from an operational technology. What I mean by that is the sort of things we find in industry—process and manufacturing.
Then we have this thing called IoT. One of our board members expressed it very well. He called it the “invasion of IoT”. What I took from that is that this technology is coming at us, ready or not. We established in those early days that we needed to have a response. The need is now. We could not wait for new standards and regulation, which is why we set up the IoT Security Foundation. Our centre of gravity is in best practice. It is saying, “Can we help manufacturers who do not yet see that the very fact that they are starting to connect things up poses a risk?” They did not, but now we are in a much better state. The body is developing.
I am delighted to be here to talk about this regulation. More needs to be done, without a doubt. A seminal moment for me was at the very first summit that I talked about. We had the chief technology officer of ARM, a chap called Mike Muller, give a talk in which he said, “The ugly truth is this: you will get hacked.” That was quite an epiphany for me, because coming from an engineering background, we engineer our systems to be virtually perfect, but what we are witnessing now is that security is a movable feast that evolves. Out in the wild, things change. New vulnerabilities are discovered. Yes, you can do all you can to engineer it up front, but guess what? Once it is in the wild, this thing called resilience is so important. What that means, especially in terms of this regulation, is the software updating part and especially the vulnerability disclosure. They are absolutely essential parts. That is part of what I have learned on the way.
I come to refer to IoT security as a “wicked challenge”. By that I mean that I do not think we will ever perfectly fix it, because it is always moving, but we can address it. We can mitigate the risks to a level that we are comfortable with and can accept. Again, another phrase I learned is, “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good.” This is all good. This is progressive. This is what the world needs. Being part of the regulatory process to get here today, it became apparent that getting regulation right is so difficult. It is so easy to get it wrong, but going through the process, this is a regulation that we can wholeheartedly back. We think it is absolutely the right thing. It takes a step; it gets us on that security journey. We often talk about an on-ramp of security. It is about maturity. In terms of regulation, this is a fantastic first step, but more will come. The way it has been set up is exemplary. We can evolve it over time as we have to ratchet up the security for the benefit of consumers and society. I hope that little ramble gives you some idea about my journey and where I think we are at.