Smart speakers, wearables and sensors: How up-to-date are such permanently connected IoT devices?

By 2023, billions of Internet of Things (IoT) devices found their way into almost every area of life, industry and critical infrastructures. As these permanently connected smart devices process very sensitive data, their up-to-dateness is essential to close vulnerabilities and thus enhance cybersecurity – especially in times of hacker attacks, data misuse or industrial espionage. In this context, a new Fraunhofer ISI study analysed data of 52 billion devices, their geographical location – and whether their installed firmware is up-to-date and which impact the European General Data Protection Regulation has on this. The findings show that it is only a matter of time before very serious cyberattacks could easily happen.

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Users track their health and fitness with wearables, place smart speakers with powerful microphones in their living rooms, and install cheap sensors from no-name manufacturers to automate tasks in their smart homes. The same applies for industry, where Industrial IoT devices connect and monitor machines for example. Most of these devices are quickly forgotten, once they are installed and run. Possible vulnerabilities in outdated firmware and updates or patches are often ignored, even if some manufactures of IoT devices provide them – which is not always the case since many of them prioritize fast time-to-market and provide only infrequently software or firmware updates and patches. This can create serious privacy and security threats for users.

Policymakers around the world have become aware of these threats that users are faced with and pursue strong regulations such as the European GDPR. Further, the “right for updates” stipulated in an EU directive and in force since 2022, is another important step towards more secure devices. Very recently, the EU commission signed the “Cyber Resilience Act” which introduces a legal obligation for manufacturers to provide consumers with timely security updates during several years after the purchase.

Which impact has this on the manufacturers of smart devices?

A new study tried to provide answers to this and other questions and analysed 400 terabytes of real-world data from the IoT search engine from October 2015 until end of November 2021. The analysis consists of data from 52 billion devices. Out of them 175 million devices revealed analysable information, leading to a data set containing 7.116 distinct models from 384 manufacturers categorized into 17 different device types. The data allows comparisons between a wide variety of countries, namely all EU member states, G7 states, and Switzerland but also Russia and the Ukraine, as well as Asian countries, such as Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Japan and the UK. The findings show that the majority of the devices are deployed in the US (52%), followed by Germany (7%), Russia (4%), the UK (4%), Japan (4%), France (4%), Canada (3%), Poland (3%), Singapore (1%), Indonesia (1%) and other countries (16%).

Major cybersecurity risks due to old firmware and device age

Examining the status quo of end 2021, the age of the firmware running on the devices in Germany is 689 days, respectively 1.9 years (y). Further, the devices have not received any other update (software update, patch etc.) for almost one year (351 days). On an EU-level, the situation is even worse with a firmware-update delay of 930 days (2.5 y) and other updates being ignored for 411 days (1.1 y). This means that the use of many of these devices is associated with major cybersecurity risks and that data protection is no longer possible here – the devices are vulnerable and easy prey for hacker attacks, for example.

Looking at the device age and the geographical differences, the results find that devices in Ireland to be most up-to-date (239 days), whereas Portugal brings up the rear with 786 days. If we look to Southeast Asia, it becomes clear that Singapore performs best (299 d) and Malaysia worst (477 d, 1,3 y). The oldest devices can be found in Japan (716 days, almost 2 years).

Has the GDPR improved the up-to-dateness of the installed firmware?

Regarding the question of whether the situation has changed for the better since the European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) went into effect – it contains explicit regulations on this issue –, the study shows interesting findings: While on the global level, the devices' age has decreased, the situation is quite different for Europe: In fact, for 28 out of 35 EU member states, the devices’ age increased on average 99 days.

Dr. Frank Ebbers, author of two research papers (see below) on this topic, interprets the results as follows: “The low up-to-dateness-rate should alarm both manufacturers and users but also policymakers and sharpen the focus on this issue. It is also surprising that the GDPR had not the expected impact on software updates within the EU. This might be explained by the fact that users believe now that GDPR is in force that only companies are responsible for updates and that these organizations care more about the privacy of customers.” Frank Ebbers believes that the manufacturers, the regulatory authorities and the users themselves have a responsibility here: “Only through the joint efforts of these three partners is it possible to create a more secure IT infrastructure.” It is often said that the situation can be improved with automatic updates, so-called ‘over-the-air’ updates. He takes a critical view of this: “The first question that arises here is who is liable for damage caused by errors in automatic updates. Just think of the medical sector, where a faulty update of portable ECG devices can cost lives”.

Regulatory authorities should therefore issue recommendations to manufacturers that force (or nudge) them to incorporate good update mechanisms into the devices, which can then be easily understood by end users. In addition, updates should become a prerequisite for commissioning in Europe as part of CE labelling.

The Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research ISI analyzes the origins and impacts of innovations. We research the short- and long-term developments of innovation processes and the impacts of new technologies and services on society. On this basis, we are able to provide our clients from industry, politics and science with recommendations for action and perspectives for key decisions. Our expertise is founded on our scientific competence as well as an interdisciplinary and systemic research approach.

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