UK government announces law to protect smart devices from hackers

New law will require manufacturers, importers and distributors of smart technology to meet tough new cybersecurity standards or face fines of £10 million

Posted 25 November 2021 by Christine Horton

The UK government wants to introduce a new law that will require manufacturers, importers and distributors of smart technology to meet tough new cybersecurity standards or face heavy fines.

The government says the Product Security and Telecommunications Infrastructure (PSTI) Bill will allow it to ban universal default passwords, force firms to be transparent to customers about what they are doing to fix security flaws in connectable products, and create a better public reporting system for vulnerabilities found in those products. 

The goal is that consumers will be better protected from attacks by hackers on their phones, tablets, smart TVs, fitness trackers and other internet-connectable devices.

It is also hoped the Bill will speed up the roll out of faster and more reliable broadband and mobile networks by making it easier for operators to upgrade and share infrastructure. The reforms will encourage quicker and more collaborative negotiations with landowners hosting the equipment, to reduce instances of lengthy court action which are holding up improvements in digital connectivity.

“Every day hackers attempt to break into people’s smart devices,” said Julia Lopez, Minister for Media, Data and Digital Infrastructure. “Most of us assume if a product is for sale, it’s safe and secure. Yet many are not, putting too many of us at risk of fraud and theft.

“Our Bill will put a firewall around everyday tech from phones and thermostats to dishwashers, baby monitors and doorbells, and see huge fines for those who fall foul of tough new security standards.”

Increase in connected tech

The ownership and use of connected tech products has increased dramatically in recent years. On average there are nine in every UK household, with forecasts suggesting there could be up to 50 billion worldwide by 2030. But only one in five manufacturers have appropriate security measures in place for their connectable products.

Cybercriminals are increasingly targeting these products. A recent investigation by Which? found a home filled with smart devices could be exposed to more than 12,000 hacking or unknown scanning attacks from across the world in a single week. 

And, in the first half of 2021, there were 1.5 billion attempted compromises of Internet of Things (IoT) devices, double the 2020 figure. The National Cyber Security Centre last week revealed it had dealt with an unprecedented number of cyber incidents over the past year.

Currently the makers of digital tech products must comply with rules to stop them causing people physical harm from issues such as overheating, sharp components or electric shock. But there is no regulation to protect consumers from harm caused by cyber breaches, which can include fraud and theft of personal data.

The PSTI Bill will counter this threat by giving ministers new powers to bring in tougher security standards for device makers. This includes:

  • A ban on easy-to-guess default passports that come preloaded on devices – such as ‘password’ or ‘admin’ – which are a target for hackers. All passwords that come with new devices will need to be unique and not resettable to any universal factory setting.
  • A requirement for connectable product manufacturers to tell customers at the point of sale, and keep them updated, about the minimum amount of time a product will receive vital security updates and patches. If a product does not come with security updates that must be disclosed. This will increase people’s awareness about when the products they buy could become vulnerable so they can make better informed purchasing decisions. Nearly 80 per cent of these firms do not have any such system in place.
  • New rules that require manufacturers to provide a public point of contact to make it simpler for security researchers and others to report when they discover flaws and bugs in products.

The Bill places duties on in-scope businesses to investigate compliance failures, produce statements of compliance, and maintain appropriate records of this.

Regulator to impose fines

This new cybersecurity regime will be overseen by a regulator, which will be designated once the Bill comes into force, and will have the power to fine companies for non-compliance up to £10 million or four percent of their global turnover, as well as up to £20,000 a day in the case of an ongoing contravention.

The regulator will also be able to issue notices to companies requiring that they comply with the security requirements, recall their products, or stop selling or supplying them altogether. As new threats emerge or standards develop, ministers will have the power to mandate further security requirements for companies to follow via secondary legislation.

The new laws will apply not only to manufacturers, but also to other businesses including both physical shops and online retailers which enable the sale of millions of cheap tech imports into the UK. 

Retailers will be forbidden from selling products to UK customers unless they meet the security requirements and will be required to pass important information about security updates on to customers. 

The Bill applies to ‘connectable’ products, which includes all devices that can access the internet – such as smartphones, smart TVs, games consoles, security cameras and alarm systems, smart toys and baby monitors, smart home hubs and voice-activated assistants and smart home appliances such as washing machines and fridges.

It also applies to products that can connect to multiple other devices but not directly to the internet.  Examples include smart light bulbs, smart thermostats and wearable fitness trackers.

Exempt products

The government intends to exempt some products – for instance, where it would subject them to double regulation or not lead to material improvements in product or user security. This includes vehicles, smart meters, electric vehicle charging points and medical devices. 

Desktop and laptop computers are not in scope because they are served by a mature antivirus software market, unlike smart speakers and other emerging consumer tech. Operating systems on laptops and PCs already include security features which means they are not subject to the same threats and risks.

Second-hand connectable products will be exempt due to the impractical obligations that including them would put on consumers and businesses disproportionate to the likely benefits. However, the Bill gives ministers powers to extend the scope of the Bill as cyber threats and risks change in future.