On the Latest Bluetooth Impersonation Attack

Details on a new attack on Bluetooth have just been released (see here for its website). From what I understand it is based on two weaknesses of the protocol itself.

A quick description seems to be the following (correct me if I have misunderstood something).

When two Bluetooth devices (Alice and Bob) pair, they establish a common secret key mutually authenticating each other. The secret common key is kept by both Alice and Bob to authenticate each other in all future connections. Up to here all is ok.

Now it is important to notice the following points when Alice and Bob establish a new connection after pairing:

  • the connection can be established using a “Legacy Secure Connection” (LSC, less secure) or a “Secure Connection” (SC, secure), and either Alice or Bob can request to use LSC;
  • one of the devices acts as Master and the other as Slave, a connection can be closed and restarted and either Alice or Bob can request to act as Master;
  • in a “Legacy Secure Connection” the Slave must prove to the Master that it has the common secret key, but it is not requested that the Master proves to the Slave that it also has the common secret key (Authentication weakness);
  • in a “Secure Connection” either Alice or Bob can close the connection and restart it as a “Legacy Secure Connection” (Downgrade weakness).

Now Charlie wants to intercept the Bluetooth connection between Alice and Bob: first he listens to their connection and learns their Bluetooth addresses (which are public). Then Charlie jams the connection between Alice and Bob and connects as a Master to Alice using LSC and Bob’s Bluetooth address, and connects as a Master to Bob using LSC and Alice’s Bluetooth address. Since Charlie is Master both with respect to Alice and to Bob and since he can always downgrade the connection to LSC, he does not have to prove to neither Alice or Bob that he knows their common secret key. In this way Charlie is able to perform a MitM attack on the Bluetooth connection between Alice and Bob (obviously this description is very high level, I sketched just an idea of what is going on).

The bad point about this is that it is a weakness of the protocol, so all existing Bluetooth implementations are subject to it. The good point is that the fix should not be too difficult, except for the fact that many (too many) devices cannot be patched! Fortunately this attack seems not to apply to Bluetooth LE, but still I expect that most Bluetooth devices subject to this attack will never be patched.

But we should also consider the real impact of this attack: to perform it, the attacker Charlie should be physically near enough to the two devices (Alice and Bob) with a dedicate hardware (even if not so expensive), so this limits the possible implementations. Moreover this attack can have important consequences if Bluetooth is used to transfer very sensitive information or for critical applications (for example in the health sector). In other words, I would not worry when using Bluetooth to listen to music from my smartphone but I would worry if Bluetooth is used in some mission critical applications.