California passes law that bans default passwords in connected devices

Good news!

California has passed a law banning default passwords like “admin,” “123456” and the old classic “password” in all new consumer electronics starting in 2020.

Every new gadget built in the state from routers to smart home tech will have to come with “reasonable” security features out of the box. The law specifically calls for each device to come with a preprogrammed password “unique to each device.”

It also mandates that any new device “contains a security feature that requires a user to generate a new means of authentication before access is granted to the device for the first time,” forcing users to change the unique password to something new as soon as it’s switched on for the first time.

For years, botnets have utilized the power of badly secured connected devices to pummel sites with huge amounts of internet traffic — so-called distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks. Botnets typically rely on default passwords that are hardcoded into devices when they’re built that aren’t later changed by the user. Malware breaks into the devices using publicly available default passwords, hijacks the device and ensnares the device into conducting cyberattacks without the user’s knowledge.

Two years ago, the notorious Mirai botnet dragged thousands of devices together to target Dyn, a networking company that provides domain name service to major sites. By knocking Dyn offline, other sites that relied on its services were also inaccessible — like Twitter, Spotify and SoundCloud.

Mirai was a relatively rudimentary, albeit powerful botnet that relied on default passwords. This law is a step in the right direction to prevent these kinds of botnets, but falls short on wider security issues.

Other, more advanced botnets don’t need to guess a password because they instead exploit known vulnerabilities in Internet of Things devices — like smart bulbs, alarms and home electronics.

As noted by others, the law as signed does not mandate device makers to update their software when bugs are found. The big device makers, like Amazon, Apple and Google, do update their software, but many of the lesser-known brands do not.

Still, as it stands, the law is better than nothing — even if there’s room for improvement in the future.