A recent attack against Bluetooth, called KNOB, has been making waves last week. In essence, it allows an attacker to downgrade the security of a Bluetooth so much that it's possible for the attacker to break the encryption key and spy on all the traffic. The attack is so devastating that some have described it as the "stop using bluetooth" flaw.

This is my attempt at answering my own lingering questions about "can I still use Bluetooth now?" Disclaimer: I'm not an expert in Bluetooth at all, and just base this analysis on my own (limited) knowledge of the protocol, and some articles (including the paper) I read on the topic.

  1. KNOB attack: Is my Bluetooth device insecure?
  2. Is Bluetooth still safe?
  3. Keyboards: bad
  4. Other input devices: hum
  5. Speakers: okay
  6. Headsets and microphones: hum
  7. File and contact transfers: bad
  8. Overall: meh

Is Bluetooth still safe?

It really depends what "safe" means, and what your threat model is. I liked how the Ars Technica article put it:

It's also important to note the hurdles—namely the cost of equipment and a surgical-precision MitM—that kept the researchers from actually carrying out their over-the-air attack in their own laboratory. Had the over-the-air technique been easy, they almost certainly would have done it.

In other words, the active attack is really hard to do, and the researchers didn't actually do one at all! It's a theoretical flaw, at this point, and while it's definitely possible, it's not what the researchers did:

The researchers didn't carry out the man-in-the-middle attack over the air. They did, however, root a Nexus 5 device to perform a firmware attack. Based on the response from the other device—a Motorola G3—the researchers said they believe that both attacks would work.

This led some researchers to (boldy) say they would still use a Bluetooth keyboard:

Dan Guido, a mobile security expert and the CEO of security firm Trail of Bits, said: "This is a bad bug, although it is hard to exploit in practice. It requires local proximity, perfect timing, and a clear signal. You need to fully MitM both peers to change the key size and exploit this bug. I'm going to apply the available patches and continue using my bluetooth keyboard."

So, what's safe and what's not, in my much humbler opinion?

Keyboards: bad

The attack is a real killer for Bluetooth keyboards. If an active attack is leveraged, it's game over: everything you type is visible to the attacker, and that includes, critically, passwords. In theory, one could even input keyboard events into the channel, which allows basically arbitrary code execution on the host.

Some, however, made the argument that it's probably easier to implant a keylogger in the device than actually do that attack, but I disagree: this requires physical access, while the KNOB attack can be done remotely.

How far this can be done, by the way, is still open to debate. The Telegraph claimed "a mile" in a click-bait title, but I think such an attacker would need to be much closer for this to work, more in the range of "meters" than "kilometers". But it still means "a black van sitting outside your house" instead of "a dude breaking into your house", which is a significant difference.

Other input devices: hum

I'm not sure mice and other input devices are such a big deal, however. Extracting useful information from those mice moving around the screen is difficult without seeing what's behind that screen.

So unless you use an on-screen keyboard or have special input devices, I don't think those are such a big deal when spied upon.

They could be leveraged with other attacks to make you "click through" some things an attacker would otherwise not be able to do.

Speakers: okay

I think I'll still keep using my Bluetooth speakers. But that's because I don't have much confidential audio I listen to. I listen to music, movies, and silly cat videos; not confidential interviews with victims of repression that should absolutely have their identities protected. And if I ever come across such material, I now know that I should not trust that speaker..

Otherwise, what's an attacker going to do here: listen to my (ever decreasing) voicemail (which is transmitted in cleartext by email anyways)? Listen to that latest hit? Meh.

Do keep in mind that some speakers have microphones in them as well, so that's not the entire story...

Headsets and microphones: hum

Headsets and microphones are another beast, as they can listen to other things in your environment. I do feel much less comfortable using those devices now. What makes the entire thing really iffy is some speakers do have microphones in them and all of a sudden everything around you can listen on your entire life.

(It seems like a given, with "smart home assistants" these days, but I still like to think my private conversations at home are private, in general. And I generally don't want to be near any of those "smart" devices, to be honest.)

One mitigating circumstance here is that the attack needs to happen during the connection (or pairing? still unclear) negociation, which doesn't happen that often if everything works correctly. Unfortunately, this happens more than often exactly with speakers and headsets. That's because many of those devices stupidly have low limits on the number of devices they can pair with. For example, the Bose Soundlink II can only pair with 8 other devices. If you count three device by person (laptop, workstation, phone), you quickly hit the limit when you move the device around. So I end up repairing that device quite often.

And that would be if the attack takes place during the pairing phase. As it turns out, the attack window is much wider: the attack happens during the connexion stage (see Figure 1, page 1049 in the paper), after devices have paired. This actually happens way more often than just during pairing. Any time your speaker or laptop will go to sleep, it will disconnect. Then to start using the device again, the BT layer will renegociate that keysize, and the attack can happen again.

(I have written the authors of the paper to clarify at which stage the attack happens and will update this post when/if they reply. Update: Daniele Antonioli has confirmed the attack takes place at connect phase.)

Fortunarely, the Bose Soundlink II has no microphone, which I'm thankful of. But my Bluetooth headset does have a microphone, which makes me less comfortable.

File and contact transfers: bad

Bluetooth, finally, is also used to transfer stuff other than audio of course. It's clunky, weird and barely working, but it's possible to send files over Bluetooth, and some headsets and car controllers will ask you permission to list your contacts so that "smart" features like "OK Google, call dad please" will work.

This attack makes it possible for an attacker to steal your contacts, when connecting devices. It can also intercept file transfers and so on.

That's pretty bad, to say the least.

Unfortunately, the "connection phase" mitigation described above is less relevant here. It's less likely you'll be continuously connecting two phones (or your phone and laptop) together for the purpose of file transfers. What's more likely is you'll connect the devices for explicit purpose of the file transfer, and therefore an attacker has a window for attack at every transfer.

I don't really use the "contacts" feature anyways (because it creeps me the hell out in the first place), so that's not a problem for me. But the file transfer problem will certainly give me pause the next time I ever need to feel the pain of transfering files over Bluetooth again, which I hope is "never".

It's interesting to note the parallel between this flaw, which will mostly affect Android file transfers, and the recent disclosure of flaws with Apple's Airdrop protocol which was similarly believed to be secure, even though it was opaque and proprietary. Now, think a bit about how Airdrop uses Bluetooth to negociate part of the protocol, and you can feel like I feel that everything in security just somewhat keeps crashes down and we don't seem to be able to make any progress at all.

Overall: meh

I've always been uncomfortable with Bluetooth devices: the pairing process has no sort of authentication whatsoever. The best you get is to enter a pin, and it's often "all zeros" or some trivially easy thing to bruteforce. So Bluetooth security has always felt like a scam, and I especially never trusted keyboards with passwords, in particular.

Like many branded attacks, I think this one might be somewhat overstated. Yes, it's a powerful attack, but Bluetooth implementations are already mostly proprietary junk that is undecipherable from the opensource world. There are no or very few open hardware implementations, so it's somewhat of expected we find things like this.

I have also found the response from the Bluetooth SIG is particularly alarming:

To remedy the vulnerability, the Bluetooth SIG has updated the Bluetooth Core Specification to recommend a minimum encryption key length of 7 octets for BR/EDR connections.

7 octets is 56 bits. That's the equivalent of DES, which was broken in 56 hours back, over 20 years ago. That's far from enough. But what's more disturbing is that this key size negociation protocol might be there "because 'some' governments didn't want other governments to have stronger encryption", ie. it would be a backdoor.

The 7-byte lower bound might also be there because of Apple lobbying. Their AirPods were implemented as not-standards-compliant and already have that lower 7-byte bound, so by fixing the standard to match one Apple implementation, they would reduce the cost of their recall/replacements/upgrades.

Overally, this behavior of the standards body is what should make us suspicious of any Bluetooth device going forward, and question the motivations of the entire Bluetooth standardization process. We can't use 56 bits keys anymore, and I can't believe I need to explicitely say so, but it seems it's where we're at with Bluetooth these days.

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