The FTC and Industry Propose Best Practices for IoT Security Updates

by Hogan Lovells
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Hogan Lovells

[co-author: Jonathan Hirsch]

How do you ensure that an Internet-connected sensor or device—often inexpensive and designed for lifespans of up to 20 years or more—can be secured against not only the intrusions of today but also those of the future? This question has taken on new urgency as low-cost Internet-connected devices are increasingly being co-opted into massive networks, known as “botnets,” that are capable of causing widespread disruption.

Both government regulators and industry have been working together to solve this and related questions by developing best practices for mitigating security risks from unpatched or unsupported devices. As we discussed in January, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), an independent agency within the Department of Commerce, is leading a multi-stakeholder process to consider opportunities and challenges associated with the Internet of Things (IoT). Since then, a working group convened by the NTIA has published a draft set of industry best practices for communicating to consumers when patches are available and when device manufacturers support sunsets. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC), consumer representatives and industry have submitted comments discussing these issues.

The NTIA’s Best Practices Draft

As appreciation for IoT security threats has grown, stakeholders in government, industry, and the technologist community have issued various guidance materials addressing how manufacturers should communicate information about security updates for IoT devices. The NTIA working group summarized and harmonized these recommendations into the best practices draft document for manufacturers. The document is also intended to serve as a baseline for the NTIA’s ongoing work in support of the growth of IoT products.

The NTIA draft document proposes two tiers of information manufacturers should share about security updates and patches: “key elements” and “additional elements.”

Key Elements

  • Indicate whether a device can receive security updates and, if so, whether updates are automatic or require user intervention; and
  • Specify anticipated timelines for ending security support.

Additional Elements

  • Describe how users are notified about security updates;
  • Describe what to expect when support ends; and
  • Describe how the update process itself is secured.

The FTC’s View

Last month the FTC responded positively to the NTIA working group’s proposal but encouraged the group to pay closer attention to how information is communicated to consumers. From the FTC’s perspective, this includes providing clear disclosures at purchase, developing easy-to-use methods for communicating security updates during a product’s lifespan, and providing useful information to consumers that is free of technical jargon.

Provide Clear Disclosures About Security Features at Purchase

Ideally, the FTC points out, manufacturers would provide automatic, seamless updates indefinitely, which would reduce the level of disclosure required to keep customers informed.

Recognizing that indefinite support is costly and may not make sense in many industries, the FTC embraced two key elements proposed by the NTIA document, with slight modifications. First, the FTC expressed concern about the use of anticipated support timelines, as “aspirational claims can mislead consumers,” particularly when consumers misunderstand aspirations as guarantees. The FTC suggests that manufacturers instead specify a minimum guaranteed support end date. Second, when a minimum end date is infeasible, the FTC recommends providing an anticipated timeline with a specified start date instead, which would provide guidance to the consumer who buys a product late in its lifecycle and expects the support period to begin at time of purchase. The FTC did not elaborate on effective methods for communicating this information.

The FTC is particularly concerned with educating consumers about the effects of sunsetting support for smart products with “dumb” equivalents. A consumer who purchases a smart toaster should know how security patch sunsetting will impact their breakfast routine. Will the smart functions continue to work but leave the consumer vulnerable to cyber-threats? Will the smart functions deactivate but the toaster continue to function as a “dumb” device? Or will the toaster cease to function and require replacement?

Communicate Important Security Information Throughout the Product’s Life

The FTC suggests that consumers should continue to receive information about security updates throughout the product’s lifecycle, especially as the support window closes. These notifications should follow a uniform method, such as an in-app notification, that explains the impact of applying an update. When a device nears the end of its supported lifespan, manufacturers should remind customers that support will soon end and provide them with clear, concise explanations of how the end of support will impact their product. While the risks associated with operating unsupported devices may mean that upgrading to a new product is a good recommendation, the FTC believes that these messages should be provided separately from marketing messages to increase the likelihood that consumers will read them and not opt-out from receiving them.

Avoid Overburdening Consumers with Technical Information

The FTC advised omitting a recommendation to describe to consumers how the update process is secured. The concern is that this information is not actionable for consumers who often do not understand the nuances of encryption and file signatures. Instead, manufacturers should focus on providing clear information to consumers about the update process using the uniform notification method described above. Just as the FTC felt that combining security-related communications with marketing messages would undermine the importance of the messages to consumers, the FTC suggests that consumers may be intimidated by elaborate technical explanations or left uncertain about how to proceed.

Other Stakeholder Responses: Emphasis on Flexibility, Innovation

The FTC’s comments are consistent with other industry and consumer groups’ emphasis on regular security updates, many of which provided comments on a broader NTIA Green Paper on Advancing IoT which was issued in January. Several of these comments emphasized the need for guidelines to be sufficiently flexible to accommodate a range of devices and applications.

Commenters were also keen to highlight the risk of overregulation of nascent technology. As the Consumer Technology Association put it, “overly broad and prescriptive rules … can inadvertently throttle innovation … and inhibit security innovations that would promote safety.”

Microsoft’s comment highlighted this balance by arguing that requirements for very long manufacturer technical support timelines or third-party support after manufacturer sunset would make consumers less safe. According to Microsoft, long support timelines create new security risks. Hardware-based security advances cannot be back-ported (i.e., retrofitted) to older devices, and software updates may introduce new bugs. These shortcomings could result in users relying on “up to date” devices that are not as secure as the state of the art and whose relatively modest security would be attractive to hackers. Long-term support requirements may also inhibit the development of new technologies that would be harmed by exposure to older products with fewer security features.

Next Steps

The NTIA’s earlier Green Paper on IoT and its Best Practices draft document on communicating patching and device support sunset are not binding and the FTC’s comment is “not intended to provide a template for FTC Law Enforcement.” Yet, they offer a benchmark for IoT manufacturers and their attorneys to consider when developing security or support features for new or existing products. The NTIA working group’s most recent meeting was on July 18, 2017. Future working group meetings have yet to be scheduled.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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