A recently passed California bill may begin to set a legislative standard in the US for basic Internet of Things (IoT) security, but it's such a low and vague standard in such a politically unfashionable area that it may not signal much in terms of what's to come.
Earlier this month, the California state legislature presented legislation on minimum IoT-security requirements to Gov. Jerry Brown for signature. If Brown signs the bill into law, it will go into effect on January 1, 2020.
The legislation dictates that device manufacturers equip devices with "a reasonable security feature or features" against attacks and compromises. It also specifies that such feature(s) must be "appropriate" for both the device itself -- taking into account its functionality -- and the type of information the device handles.
IoT-regulation skeptics have long complained that one big problem of IoT-related laws and regulations is that there can be no practical one-size-fits-all; by definition, an IoT device can literally be just about anything.
Getting something done
The device-appropriate requirement makes compliance less of a headache for manufacturers because it is almost a non-requirement. While it's clear that the bill requires devices to feature at least something
in the way of meaningful and relevant security, it is hard to imagine a manufacturer going to the trouble to make and market a device with security features so inappropriately complex or burdensome as to make the device unusable -- or a regulatory agency initiating action in such a case.
The coinciding requirement of information appropriateness may give the law some juice, however -- potentially more stringently impacting devices that deal with more sensitive information. A smart washer-dryer set probably wouldn't need nearly as strong security for compliance as, say, an Amazon Echo acting as an automation hub that listens to and records every word it "hears" would.
Still, the bill's requirements are vague (particularly because of that fluffy word "reasonable," which tends to set a very low bar in legal contexts) and it offers manufacturers numerous exceptions and outs.
Perhaps the only real meat in the California bill lies in what it has to say on the reasonableness of default authentication setups.
It clarifies that manufacturers of devices "equipped with a means for authentication outside a local area network" automatically satisfy the reasonableness requirement by either (1) preprogramming unique passwords to each respective device or (2) installing a feature that does not grant initial access until the user "generate[s] a new means of authentication."
The bill continues that such a feature must still meet the appropriateness requirements while being "[d]esigned to protect the device and any information contained therein from unauthorized access, destruction, use, modification, or disclosure." This caveat appears superfluous, however. Standard implementations of (1) unique default passwords and (2) forced user-generated authentication on first use, respectively, are features that are almost certainly so appropriate and so designed.
By specifically identifying either of these two features as a means of effective compliance for Internet- or Bluetooth-connected devices, while being vague on just about everything else, the legislation acts as a strong suggestion to manufacturers to stop shipping devices with non-unique passwords -- or no authentication measure at all. At the same time, it permissively bows to industry interests if manufacturers decide that they have a better idea.
Even with all this vagueness and permissibility, and even considering it effectively took over a year and a half from its February 2017 introduction to finalize and jointly pass this legislation in both the state senate
and the state assembly
, to do that much as a legislature on IoT security is a relatively boastworthy victory for politicians when compared to such efforts at the federal level.
Numerous attempts at federal IoT-security legislation over the past couple of years have died in committee.
Cybersecurity pundits call the present bill the first IoT-specific legislation in the US, but that honor has already been taken; this bill is not even the first IoT-specific law in California.
In 2015, after a consumer-data scandal surrounding smart-television manufacturer Vizio, Calif. enacted a law putting strict requirements on the implementation of voice-recognition technology and limitations on the use of voice-recognition data by smart-television manufacturers and others. In 2006, California passed a law imposing similar, stricter requirements and limitations upon satellite and cable companies regarding monitoring, collecting and using subscriber data.
It seems, California has been leading the nation on IoT-security statutes for some time; it remains uncertain as to when -- or if -- other US lawmakers will follow.
—Joe Stanganelli, principal of Beacon Hill Law, is a Boston-based attorney, corporate-communications and data-privacy consultant, writer, and speaker. Follow him on Twitter at @JoeStanganelli.
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