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The Viability and Potential Consequences of IoT-Based Ransomware

Brierley, Calvin (2022) The Viability and Potential Consequences of IoT-Based Ransomware. Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) thesis, University of Kent,. (doi:10.22024/UniKent/01.02.100745) (KAR id:100745)


With the increased threat of ransomware and the substantial growth of the Internet of Things (IoT) market, there is significant motivation for attackers to carry out IoT-based ransomware campaigns. In this thesis, the viability of such malware is tested.

As part of this work, various techniques that could be used by ransomware developers to attack commercial IoT devices were explored. First, methods that attackers could use to communicate with the victim were examined, such that a ransom note was able to be reliably sent to a victim. Next, the viability of using "bricking" as a method of ransom was evaluated, such that devices could be remotely disabled unless the victim makes a payment to the attacker. Research was then performed to ascertain whether it was possible to remotely gain persistence on IoT devices, which would improve the efficacy of existing ransomware methods, and provide opportunities for more advanced ransomware to be created. Finally, after successfully identifying a number of persistence techniques, the viability of privacy-invasion based ransomware was analysed.

For each assessed technique, proofs of concept were developed. A range of devices -- with various intended purposes, such as routers, cameras and phones -- were used to test the viability of these proofs of concept. To test communication hijacking, devices' "channels of communication" -- such as web services and embedded screens -- were identified, then hijacked to display custom ransom notes. During the analysis of bricking-based ransomware, a working proof of concept was created, which was then able to remotely brick five IoT devices. After analysing the storage design of an assortment of IoT devices, six different persistence techniques were identified, which were then successfully tested on four devices, such that malicious filesystem modifications would be retained after the device was rebooted. When researching privacy-invasion based ransomware, several methods were created to extract information from data sources that can be commonly found on IoT devices, such as nearby WiFi signals, images from cameras, or audio from microphones. These were successfully implemented in a test environment such that ransomable data could be extracted, processed, and stored for later use to blackmail the victim.

Overall, IoT-based ransomware has not only been shown to be viable but also highly damaging to both IoT devices and their users. While the use of IoT-ransomware is still very uncommon "in the wild", the techniques demonstrated within this work highlight an urgent need to improve the security of IoT devices to avoid the risk of IoT-based ransomware causing havoc in our society. Finally, during the development of these proofs of concept, a number of potential countermeasures were identified, which can be used to limit the effectiveness of the attacking techniques discovered in this PhD research.

Item Type: Thesis (Doctor of Philosophy (PhD))
Thesis advisor: Arief, Budi
Thesis advisor: Hernandez-Castro, Julio
Thesis advisor: Barnes, David
DOI/Identification number: 10.22024/UniKent/01.02.100745
Uncontrolled keywords: ransomware; IoT; malware; bricking; security persistence; Linux
Subjects: Q Science > QA Mathematics (inc Computing science) > QA 75 Electronic computers. Computer science
Divisions: Divisions > Division of Computing, Engineering and Mathematical Sciences > School of Computing
Funders: University of Kent (
SWORD Depositor: System Moodle
Depositing User: System Moodle
Date Deposited: 04 Apr 2023 14:10 UTC
Last Modified: 05 Apr 2023 08:53 UTC
Resource URI: (The current URI for this page, for reference purposes)

University of Kent Author Information

Brierley, Calvin.

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