IoT Security Is a Mess. Privacy 'Nutrition' Labels Could Help

By Lily Hay Newman

The internet-of-things security crisis has been building for more than a decade, with unprotected, unpatchable gadgets fueling botnets, getting attacked for nation state surveillance, and just generally being a weak link for networks. Given that IoT security seems unlikely to magically improve anytime soon, researchers and regulators are rallying behind a new approach to managing IoT risk. Think of it as nutrition labels for embedded devices.

At the IEEE Symposium on Security & Privacy last month, researchers from Carnegie Mellon University presented a prototype security and privacy label they created based on interviews and surveys of people who own IoT devices, as well as privacy and security experts. They also published a tool for generating their labels. The idea is to shed light on a device's security posture but also explain how it manages user data and what privacy controls it has. For example, the labels highlight whether a device can get security updates and how long a company has pledged to support it, as well as the types of sensors present, the data they collect, and whether the company shares that data with third parties.

“In an IoT setting, the amount of sensors and information you have about users is potentially invasive and ubiquitous," says Yuvraj Agarwal, a networking and embedded systems researcher who worked on the project. "It’s like trying to fix a leaky bucket. So transparency is the most important part. This work shows and enumerates all the choices and factors for consumers."


Nutrition labels on packaged foods have a certain amount of standardization around the world, but they're still more opaque than they could be. And security and privacy issues are even less intuitive to most people than soluble and insoluble fiber. So the CMU researchers focused a lot of their efforts on making their IoT label as transparent and accessible as possible. To that end, they included both a primary and secondary layer to the label. The primary label is what would be printed on device boxes. To access the secondary label, you could follow a URL or scan a QR code to see more granular information about a device.

"We wanted to understand whether this information can convey risk and whether participants really understood what this information means," says Pardis Emami-Naeini, a privacy researcher who led the work. "Based on the study, we found that some of the factors are really important. For example, if the data is being shared or sold to third parties, people are really concerned about this. And that hugely changed their risk perception, as does whether the device has multifactor authentication."