Japan has taken a new and authoritarian approach to the Internet of Things (IoT). According to a modification of a law passed that was last week, the National Institute of Information and Communications Technology (NICT), under the supervision of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, will attempt to survey and log into IoT devices owned by Japanese consumers.
They will use known default passwords (and dictionaries) in the effort. This is what has been called credential stuffing when done by a threat actor.
The authorities say they will, starting next month, compile a list of devices (like routers and cameras) which are vulnerable and then give the list to Internet service providers (ISP) who will then urge customers to correct them.
The first wave of scans could involve 200 million devices.
The government has said it is worried about attacks that could be carried out on the infrastructure of the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics by IoT devices.
Japan has a sketchy history with IoT devices in any case. The Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications issued a report in 2016 that stated two thirds of reported cyber attacks involved IoT devices.
In 2018, Russians attacked the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics held in South Korea through use of the Olympic Destroyer malware. So Japan has a valid reason for such fears.
Even if this government-mandated survey is successful, the question remains unanswered of what good it will accomplish.
An alert made to consumers might accomplish the same goal of heightening awareness without the intrusive nature of the survey. The over-reaching problem is that even if vulnerable devices are discovered, there may be no easy way for consumers to patch them. They would still remain in their default and vulnerable state.
So why is this massive logon even being attempted?
It may be the Japanese want to measure the possible size of an IoT-based threat, so that they would know if it is something they need to prepare for. Their methodology remains suspect even to do this.
The credential stuffing approach is crude, similar in many ways to a brute force approach. If the devices were to be targeted by an attacker, there are other ways to they could be compromised than by the use of assumed default passwords to log on to them.
Recent attacks on routers have shown the existence of undocumented manufacturing backdoors, for example. The Japanese survey does not use this sort of vector, so it may give results that portray security in a higher state than it would appear if the IoT devices were under attack by a determined adversary.
The Japanese government may need to rethink exactly what it is trying to achieve with this effort, and whether or not they are on the most efficient path. Initial public reactions have been hostile, which means authorities have not made their case to the public for this survey.
— Larry Loeb has written for many of the last century's major "dead tree" computer magazines, having been, among other things, a consulting editor for BYTE magazine and senior editor for the launch of WebWeek.