Why use certificates for Internet of Things authentication (DTLS)

How can security improve when manufacturing large volumes of devices? That’s the question I ended on in my last article about Golioth Pre-Shared Keys (PSK).

Securing a large population of devices (10k or more) in a way that’s scalable and meets your project’s budgets is not trivial, but it is solvable. It takes a combination of modern technologies, and even not so modern technologies.

Certificates have been around for decades. Today the most recognizable certificate-based security protocol is TLS, which started all the way back in the mid-90s as SSL. But certificates haven’t found their way to all IoT applications because of their complexity and infrastructure requirements.

Many connected devices work around the complexity by eschewing good security practices:

  • Completely ignoring security (authentication or encryption)
  • Relying on “security by obscurity” (proprietary solutions that are not secure, but would need to be intentionally exploited by an attacker)
  • Use product-wide passwords
  • Are produced in small enough quantities to not feel the pain (and cost) of handling per-device keys.

None of these are ideal at scale.

The Limits of Pre-Shared Key (PSK) Scaling

When using PSK, your device and your cloud need to pre-share a secret. That means you need to store and distribute a sensitive per-device key for every device (or a system to derive the key). For prototyping, this involves copying and pasting a key from the Cloud to your Device over serial or similar. There are challenges getting those keys to your devices on the production line, but the ultimate risk to your deployments are when those devices are out in the field

PSK symmetry

From a security perspective, the limitation of PSK is that it uses symmetric encryption. Both sides of the communication use the same key. That means that a potential attacker could extract the keys from the cloud (in bulk), and use them to impersonate authentic devices.

Instead, we could use an asymmetric key. With asymmetric encryption, there is no pre-shared secret, but rather a pair of keys: a public key, and a private key. In our case, the public key is shared between the cloud and the device. The private key is kept secret by the device, and can be used to decipher information encrypted with the public key. Only the holder of the private key can decipher information that is encrypted by the public key. That’s why it is called asymmetric. You cannot use the public key to decipher the information enciphered by it. The burden is again on the device maker to load the keys onto the constrained devices at the time of manufacture.

If we want to upgrade our experience even more, Certificates are more “usable” primitives that are based on asymmetric cryptography. But they offer even more trust.

Certificate signing

One extra added value of asymmetric cryptography (and public keys) is that the public keys are well suited for chains of signatures. In other words, they can be used to prove the authenticity of a chain of identity claims. A device claiming it has a specific serial number can prove its authenticity, and not just someone who copied the serial number and pretends to be the device.

How is that possible? The signatures can be independently verified by anyone out there using public keys. Even if you don’t have the public key for a specific device, you can decide you trust the manufacturer that produced the device. By extension, you trust that devices that can prove they were produced by that manufacturer.

But that also means that as an author (or producer) of a secure device, you have to choose wisely who you trust.

Chains of trust enable scaling of secure manufacturing

Let’s imagine a scenario where you design a super-secure device, powered by private / public keys in the form of certificates.

Next, you need to find someone to produce those devices, such as a contract manufacturer. Once the devices start to roll off the production line, they need to be loaded with the private-public key pairs. Someone needs to generate those pairs and help to get them on the device in a secure way.

From a simple perspective, you can use certificate chains to enable manufacturers to produce authentic devices on your behalf. When the devices first connect, they will be able to prove to the cloud that they were produced through a trust chain.

The advantage of that is that you no longer need to store all per-device keys or certificates. All you need to decide is what the trusted “root” certificates are for the devices that are authorized to interact with the cloud.

Downsides of certificates

If the security advantages of certificates are so clear, why don’t we just use them everywhere? If you come from the web world, you’ve likely never encountered PSK because certificates are everywhere. Your browser doesn’t ask for the password to access the SSL version of Google.com, they issue a certificate that can be traced back to a signing authority.

In the Internet of Things, not all use-cases have budgets left to make certificates commercially feasible.

Some of the major challenges you will need to consider:

  • You need to decide who you trust, and how much you trust them. If you can’t trust your manufacturing chain, it’s going to be very difficult (costly) to produce trustable devices
  • Secure storage of private keys for the root certificates can be costly, if you want to do it right. When compromised, private keys allow the attacker to produce certificates that are indistinguishable from authentic certificates
  • Setting up the end-to-end process of certificate provisioning can be costly, and the subsequent maintenance and rotation of certificates can carry a lot of cost, too, if not planned properly in advance

But mostly, when IoT projects are in the planning stage, security tends to be overlooked or be taken for granted. Teams scramble to get something in place just before starting a first large batch of devices; it’s often this time that companies discover the full extent of their security needs and the associated costs. At that point, budgets have already been spent and deadlines are tight, and using proper certificate authentication becomes commercially unfeasible.

Certificate authentication for Internet of Things

Certificates offer the ideal combination of security, usability, and scalability. The manufacturing chain is what ultimately defines how trustable your devices actually are, so you will need to choose who you trust wisely. The overhead of building and maintaining certificate chains and large volumes of certificates is not free, but is cheaper than the alternatives, especially if you account for risk.

At Golioth, we only allow secure device connections, at a bare minimum PSK. Our users have a choice in the degree of security that they need for their application, and that is commercially feasible for their use-case. If certificates are your choice, we have the supporting end-to-end tooling and infrastructure.

Ultimately, each company needs to consider the security sensitivity of their IoT application. Your challenge will be balancing the risks you are willing to take and the budget your application has for security overhead. Hardest of all is understanding where you should draw the line. If you’d like to talk to someone about your security needs at your company, please reach out to our DevRel team for a personalized conversation.

Talk with an Expert

Implementing an IoT project takes a team of people, and we want to help out as part of your team. If you want to troubleshoot a current problem or talk through a new project idea, we're here for you.

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