Designing security for robots

Robots are becoming more affordable and practical for everyday solutions, but the need for robust security is also important, according to security firm IOActive.


There is no doubt robots are becoming more commonplace. After all, they will soon become a less expensive human replacement in conducting the more mundane aspects of the workplace.

While the manufacturing automation sector is experiencing growth in robot usage, what happens when their software and firmware end up affected by security vulnerabilities?

As electronic devices become smarter and the cost of cutting-edge technology decreases, we increasingly look to machines to help meet human needs, save lives, entertain, teach, and cure. That means the robot becomes an affordable and practical solution for today's business and personal needs, according to analysis conducted by security firm IOActive.

The evidence of robots going mainstream is compelling as large investments continue in the public and private sectors:

  • Reports forecast worldwide spending on robotics will reach $188 billion in 2020
  • South Korea is planning to invest $450 million in robotic technology over the next five years
  • Reports estimate venture capital investments reached $587 million in 20155 and $1.95 billion in 2016
  • SoftBank recently received $236 million from Alibaba and Foxconn for its robotics division
  • UBTECH Robotics raised $120 million in the past two years
  • Factories and businesses in the U.S. added 10% more robots in 2016 than in the previous year.

Along those lines, IOActive researchers analyzed home, industrial and business robots from six different vendors. The researchers conducted tests on their mobile applications, software and firmware. IOActive identified nearly 50 vulnerabilities in the tested components, but researchers said they did not conduct an in-depth analysis, which suggests the actual number of weaknesses could be higher.

The company published a paper providing a non-technical description of the vulnerabilities. Technical details will be available after vendors have had a chance to address the flaws. IOActive said the robots it reviewed suffer from vulnerabilities, including problems related to communications, authentication, authorization mechanisms, cryptography, privacy, default configurations, and open source components.

The flaws allow attackers to intercept communications between the robot and the application controlling it, remotely access critical services without a username and password, install malicious software, and extract sensitive information not encrypted properly. The vulnerabilities can end up being leveraged for spying via the robot's camera and microphone, steal personal or business data, and even take control of the machine and cause physical damage or harm.

Robots are already showing up in thousands of homes and businesses. All signs indicate robots will soon be everywhere, as toys for children, companions for the elderly, customer assistants at stores, and healthcare attendants. Robots will fill a dizzying array of service roles, as home and business assistants, manufacturing workers, and security and law enforcement.

As many of these "smart" machines have a self-propelled component, it is important they are secure, well protected, and not easy to hack. If not, instead of helpful resources they could quickly become dangerous tools capable of wreaking havoc and causing substantive harm to their surroundings and the humans they're designed to serve.

Gregory Hale is the editor and founder of Industrial Safety and Security Source (, a news and information Website covering safety and security issues in the manufacturing automation sector. This content originally appeared on ISSSource is a CFE Media content partner. Edited by Chris Vavra, CFE Media,

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