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Physical security professionals: do you really need to care about cybersecurity too?

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business development manager, Northern Europe, Axis Communications

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Steven Kenny is business development manager of Northern Europe at Axis Communications.
May 8, 2017


State of Physical Access Trend Report 2024

So we all know that cybersecurity is important.

It’s mentioned in the national news on almost a daily basis, whether it be about the government vulnerabilities, cyberterrorism, or major retailers letting criminals steal millions of customer’s credit card details.

But, like securing physical spaces, it’s one of those things that only becomes newsworthy when it fails.

For a long time, physical security was strictly analog, and it’s only connection to the IT network was at its end point. And therefore, those responsible for physical security didn’t need to concern themselves with worrying about network security, while at the same time, the IT department didn’t need to be concerned with any undue exposure from cameras etc.


Sure hacks have always occurred even in analogue systems (the prototypical breach through a baby monitor or garage door opener being well known examples). But now that IP-based security systems are becoming the norm, with all the associated benefits, both sides need to be aware that the game has changed.

The physical security team often don’t consider cybersecurity as part of their job; the IT department may not even be aware of the vulnerabilities of devices with no obvious users or owners

The challenge, as we see it, is that the physical security team and the IT team have, on the face of it, very different outlooks and priorities, and often don’t really understand each other. Physical security is from Mars and the IT department is from Venus!

Often it can simply be a language/jargon barrier, where neither side truly ‘gets’ what the other one is talking about. But in many cases, it can also be more akin to a border dispute, or a custody battle for an unwanted child: the physical security team don’t consider cybersecurity to be part of their job, and the IT department may not even be aware of the potential vulnerabilities from a variety of devices that appear to have no obvious users or owners.

One phrase stuck in my head after a recent conversation about cybersecurity with a customer: “We are glad Axis is thinking about this stuff, and it’s interesting, but we are pretty relaxed about it right now,” they said. And if they haven’t been attacked (or at least don’t know if they have been attacked), then that response is often followed by “Cybersecurity is something that the IT department is worried about – I just have to make sure this building is secure.”

At the same time, when I have talked to the IT department, they have sometimes been unaware of the potential exposure of unsecured IP cameras.

So, how do we, as an industry, get the physical security manager to take IT security seriously? And conversely, how do we help the IT security team to talk to their physical security colleagues in a language that they understand?

Actually, it’s not that complicated. The best way is to use the terminology that they are both familiar with:

IT team cybersecurity tips

Physical team cybersecurity tips

Don’t use default passwords, make them hard to guess and change them oftenInstall decent locks and make sure the keys are hard to copy
Make sure to have proper user management tools in placeDon’t give out more keys than you absolutely have to – instead put in some access controls
Make sure devices lock themselves if not being usedLock the doors!
Detect network breachesDetect intruders
Don’t leave any ‘backdoors’ open, just in caseDon’t prop open that fire escape just in case
Put up a firewall around your network to stop people casually wandering inPut a fence up around your perimeter to stop people casually wandering in


However, not all organisations and businesses are the same, and some already have good communication between these two departments, and a good awareness of the threats they need to tackle together. What I have seen is that organizations tend to fit into one of three broad categories depending on their understanding of the threat they face.

From enterprise-level to small businesses: how cybersecurity approaches compare

At the top are those whose brand, business or credibility is based around trust and security – for example banks. By and large, they place security very high up their list of priorities, be it physical or computer-related, and it is ingrained within their corporate culture.

They are often cautious about embracing new technologies until they can be sure that their security won’t be compromised. This is especially true of new devices being connected to their network, such as cameras, access control points, etc. So their IT departments are highly unlikely to allow any new IP-based equipment to be connected without ensuring they have been properly sourced, tested and set-up.

The companies most at risk are probably those with enough complexity in their networks to make management a full-time job, but without sufficient resources to properly police every device that gets connected

Next there are those who are aware that they may be vulnerable to cyber-attacks, but may not have the specific expertise in-house to properly analyse their risks, nor how to mitigate them. However, they are at least willing to get advice, even if it’s not a critical priority for them.

These companies probably are the most at risk – with enough complexity in their networks to make management a full-time job, but possibly without sufficient resources to properly police every device that gets connected.

Lastly, there are those, usually smaller businesses, who have very little understanding of cybersecurity at all, and even less idea that devices such as cameras need to be properly secured before being connected to a network. They rarely have a full-time IT manager, let alone a person with sole responsibility for physical security.

For these businesses, a very simple, automated set-up is ideal, with all security being taken care of out of the box. For example, the Axis Companion provides cameras, recorders, memory cards and a video management system all in one package.

Lessons from major camera hacks

In the end, though, both the IT and physical security departments need to care about the problem enough to want to engage with each other, and not just pass the buck back and forth until an attack actually happens. So how to do that?

Unfortunately, the case has already been made for us, on several recent occasions. It was only a few months ago, that the Mirai BotNet attack demonstrated how vulnerable IoT devices can be, how ubiquitous they are, and how these two facts make for a highly attractive opportunity for hackers. Over several months, cybercriminals infected multiple millions of devices, including IP cameras, DVRs, home routers, etc.

Then, in September 2016, it was first used to run a massive DDoS (Distributed Denial of Service) attack on the website of a prominent security journalist, A month later, it was followed by the largest DDoS attack in history, going after, one of the key parts of the US internet backbone, upon which services such as Netflix, Spotify and Amazon rely.

In one major hack the majority of devices infected had easy-to-guess default passwords that had never been changed

Now, some may say that not being able to watch the latest episode of Orange is the New Black may not be a huge threat to Western civilization, but this just goes to show the potential of what can be done with physical security devices that haven’t been properly hardened against cyber-attack. The majority of devices infected had easy-to-guess default passwords that had never been changed – or even worse, could not be changed at all.

Or there were the devices with ‘backdoors’ built into them to make it easier for the manufacturer to debug them during development, but were never closed again before production.

In December 2016, 80 plus cameras from a major manufacturer were found to have backdoor accounts. A month later, it was reported in the Washington Post that for three days the Washington DC Police were unable to record video from their security cameras due to 70% of their storage devices being hacked.

So, we know that this won’t be the last time. The internet of things is currently an easy target, and even more so because there are very few human beings in the loop, so there is almost no-one to notice when an attack has occurred until too late.

As the Mirai BotNet attack showed, an attack might not even directly affect the host, so there is even less chance of spotting an infection unless you are paying close attention.

Axis Communications has launched a new campaign to help integrators, security professionals and IT departments strengthen cybersecurity defences through three layers of protection. You can download an e-book with 10 best practices for a healthy network and access the Axis Hardening Guide, which helps you ‘harden’ your systems against attack.

Listen to the IFSEC Insider podcast!

Each month, the IFSEC Insider (formerly IFSEC Global) Security in Focus podcast brings you conversations with leading figures in the physical security industry. Covering everything from risk management principles and building a security culture, to the key trends ahead in tech and initiatives on diversity and inclusivity, the podcast keeps security professionals up to date with the latest hot topics in the sector.

Available online, and on Spotify, Apple Podcasts and Google Podcasts, tune in for an easy way to remain up to date on the issues affecting your role.


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