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Huskarl is the product of a final year B.Sc. project that I have co-supervised. Dragomir Penev has investigated the past and present attacks against Bluetooth’s authentication and key exchange mechanisms, and has developed an alternative solution based on public key cryptography.

The new protocol utilizes symmetric and asymmetric cryptography to authenticate two Bluetooth devices, in a way similar to the very popular Secure Shell (SSH) protocol. There is no dependency on any kind of shared secrets (e.g. PINs), or other data exchanged between the devices in plaintext. Symmetric encryption is used to reduce the load that a purely asymmetric protocol would have.

The detailed message exchanges and a performance analysis of Huskarl can be found in the published paper. In this post I will discuss the choice behind Huskarl’s underlying security model, as this was my major contribution to the project.

As in the case of the SSH security model, Huskarl avoids reliance on any kind of infrastructure in order to introduce previously unknown Bluetooth entities by weakening the traditional threat model that assumes a universal omnipresent adversary. In Huskarl the bindings between digital identities and public keys are established by

  • assuming that the first time a connection happens no attacker substitutes a legitimate participant’s key with his own, or
  • via an out of band channel.

The first approach makes the protocol vulnerable to man-in-the-middle attacks on the first channel establishment between two communicating Bluetooth entities. Although initial exchanges constitute a very small percentage of a network’s total traffic, there are no guarantees that they will not be compromised. However, in the case that an attacker manages to perform a man-in-the-middle attack in an initial exchange between a pair of Bluetooth devices, he then needs to be present in every subsequent channel establishment between the specific pair. Otherwise, the devices will notice that the public key of the other party has changed and therefore know that either the initial or the current exchange has been compromised. The devices can then abort the communication and remove the offending public key from their key database, or act according to some other locally defined policy.

The second approach, i.e. the existence of an out of band channel, may not be as far fetched as it initially appears. Near Field Communication (NFC) is a new very short range wireless connectivity protocol that evolved from a combination of existing contactless identification technologies. There are mobile phones currently available on the market that have NFC capabilities, for example the Nokia 6131. As this, and other similar technologies, become widely adopted, security protocols operating along the design choices of Huskarl will be the preferred choice to other costly and centralized approaches.

Huskarl’s prototype implementation was developed on Linux using the BlueZ Bluetooth protocol stack and OpenSSL. It is published under GPLv2 and is hosted on SourceForge.