Toilet hacks: More relevant to enterprise security than you might think

Andy BokorAs we call a wrap on another busy conference season, I've had some time to think about a question I've recently heard from more than one person. Last month, news outlets far and wide reported on an entertaining presentation one of our researchers did on hacking home automation devices, including, funnily enough, Japanese "smart" toilets. It was a fun piece of vulnerability research, but the natural question that came from all of the publicity was what the heck does hacking a flushable bowl have to do with enterprise security?

Now, some people might argue that when researchers disclose how to compromise things like toilets, home lighting, cars or ATMs, they're doing it for the publicity. After all, the thought of an attacker remotely controlling the flush of your toilet or the steering wheel of your car are threats to which the most non-technical person can relate. While I'll agree that there's some showmanship and humor that goes into these kinds of presentations, the truth is that even these research projects play a role in advancing enterprise security.

Here's how: As I see it, hacking is a lot like jazz. A key aspect of this musical genre is improvisation. The great jazz musicians have mastered the elements of music theory - rhythm, melody, harmony and the like. But in their improvisations is where they push the limits of those fundamentals, sometimes to the breaking point. (Think of some of the squeakier moments of John Coltrane's rendition of "My Favorite Things").

Discovery and innovation reveal themselves in the master musician's playfulness. In the same way, hackers push the limits of technology. They attempt to make technology do something it wasn't designed to do or are simply interested in how something works and break it in the process.

At Trustwave, our security professionals typically focus their efforts on the fundamentals of security research. Doing that enables our consultants, penetration testers, and product developers to deliver the best possible protection to customers, day in and day out. The research our SpiderLabs ethical hacking team conducts fuels our business and provides the fodder for the kind of industry-wide education efforts, like the one around the annual Trustwave Global Security Report, that help CISOs identify prominent threats to their environments and justify their security spend.

Because we hire the best in the field, these professionals are as passionate about security as those musicians are about jazz. So, it's not surprising that if you were to visit our Chicago headquarters after dark, you might find some of our researchers and practitioners grabbing a few beers and practicing the hacking version of a jazz quartet improvising together.

Our researchers collaborate on those fun projects not only to explore how to probe consumer devices like Japanese toilets, but also to learn how to infiltrate the types of connected corporate systems that matter to our customers. While few journalists can resist placing "toilet" into a headline about hacking, research in that same vein has resulted in our staff discovering ways to unlock Wi-Fi connected doors, a much more serious and likely prospect. Either way, they're in it to push the boundaries of technology. Their innovation places these technologies through the crucible of ethical hacking, looking for the cracks in systems that not-so-ethical attackers find every day, in everything from our web applications to mobile devices to the card systems that run payment processing for retail organizations across the globe.

Just recently, I had a CISO tell me that the way he sees it, Trustwave is constantly innovating, staying a step ahead of his internal team and thinking of security problems that he as a security leader had yet to consider. This mindset feeds into Trustwave delivering services that are highly relevant to the needs of his organization.

To me, that is one of the biggest compliments a customer could pay Trustwave, and I think it goes hand in hand with what our dedicated researchers immerse themselves in, both on and off the clock.

Andrew Bokor is general manager of Threat Intelligence & Research at Trustwave.

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