Mocana thinks the Internet of Things could become the Internet of Headaches if we don't make it secure

By James Robinson , written on May 6, 2014

From The News Desk

Yes that connected toaster is modern and quirky, but the Internet of Things hysteria is going to seem a lot less awesome on the day a malicious hacker takes full advantage of this explosion of unprotected digital connections.

“When a malware bot gets written that turns up every Nest thermostat in Phoenix to 135 degrees in the middle of summer, it’ll seem less fun,” says Mocana CEO James Isaacs. Mocana has been providing security to mobile devices and embedded systems since 2004, but the scope of its business has expanded out rapidly with the recent connected living craze.

“When an entire city is browned out, people will wish they took more time to protect these things,” Isaacs says.

These toys we’re starting to love could be our downfall. Our connected thermostats, alarms and air conditioners all spin off information that can be used against us, Isaacs counters. Think about someone with evil intent having access to information about when the heat is turned on in your house, or when the air conditioner is going, or when your alarm is generally set. It amounts to a detailed picture of your comings and goings that you don’t want falling into the wrong hands. Mocana wants to see that protected.

In 10 years, Mocana’s software has been installed on tens of millions of devices by major corporations such as Intel, HP, and GE. Isaacs adds that Mocana’s Key VPN security product has been installed on more Android and Samsung phones than he could tally. The company has taken in $50.5 million in funding across 10 years. Isaacs was appointed as CEO of Mocana in September last year to help scale the company.

The company sells a core of crypto-security products, but the demands on these are changing rapidly. When it began in 2004, it was protecting information on devices. In 2014, it’s protecting those same devices as well as the screeds of information that fly off them. “There’s this broad secular trend. CPUs are smaller and cheaper now. You can easily embed it, drag in an iOS, a browser, and an application. A fridge didn’t have a CPU 20 years ago. Now it does, and someone can take over that browser and attack a bank,” Isaac says.

Mocana’s primary customer base is major companies working to protecting huge assets online with the industrial Internet of Things. The same principles that gave birth to the Nest, are also in play connecting up heavy duty machinery and large municipal systems. “Someone like GE is a pioneer here. They have devices that are capital intensive, oil pumps working at 1200 feet underneath the ground, jet engines throwing off large amounts of information,” he says.

Issacs thinks that as everything becomes connected, everything becomes vulnerable. As consumers, we’ve become very mobile targets for security breaches. Within the decade that Mocana has been active, we’ve gone from having just a computer, to a computer and two or three mobile devices, and within a couple of years we could have a dozen connected devices, Isaacs says. It is early days too, and we don’t know yet how these risks will evolve.

“It feels like 1994 was with the Internet. There’s so much happening, this froth of activity, large companies, small companies, all throwing their hats in,” Isaacs says. “I think the space is so wild and wooly that as a company you can kind of stake out a piece of it and not run into everybody. The competition is very diffuse,” he says.

But the rate of change is its own headache. Connected devices have made us moving targets, but the technology used to connect those devices and the ways they could be attacked are in motion too. You knock one down, two more pop up. “It’s unfortunate for society and good for security business,” Isaacs says. “We’ve never been able to anticipate the threats as fast as they evolve.”

It leaves Mocana a decade into their existence trying to establish themselves in a part of the market that hasn’t come together yet. The market could shrink as fast it could expand, Isaacs says. A lot of people are trying to plug the security gaps and problems brought up by the Internet of Things. One vendor’s wild success in the future decreases the opportunity for everybody. Mocana will battle a revolving door of new security companies and software developers.

The services Mocana has to offer to keep up, the problems it has to solve and the competitive landscape it faces are all changing quickly. Isaacs says that there are things that have happened recently -- new software preferences following the Heartbleed bug, the CEO of Target losing his job after a major data breach -- that would have shocked him six months ago.

But so it is. It’s an intense proposition. The scope of our digital lives is growing exponentially, bringing with it risks, frustrations, and dangers that emerge and recede at a dizzying pace. If Mocana is going to scale, the time is now, but to do so involves finding structure in the chaos.