Update: Security threats raise concerns about Bluetooth

Potential security risks posed by the Bluetooth wireless technology are prompting some IT managers to rein in use of Bluetooth-equipped mobile phones and PCs on their networks.

Bluetooth vendors held a press briefing Monday, which covered various security issues and provided guidance on how users can guard their devices against hackers, such as setting devices in non-discoverable mode.

But several IT managers last week said they now see a need to protect their networks from Bluetooth attacks by taking the same steps they took to secure their corporate wireless LANs.

For example, Michael Ciarochi, a network security manager at HomeBanc Corp. in Atlanta, said he discovered last week that Bluetooth radios were included in laptop PCs that were being configured by an IT engineer for delivery to the mortgage lender’s mobile workers. The radios, which operate in the same 2.4-GHz band as 802.11b WLANs, were turned on as a factory default setting.

Ciarochi said he was concerned about the possibility of opening a wireless back door into data stored on the PCs and had the Bluetooth radios turned off before the systems went into use. He added that he expects to have to secure Bluetooth by “locking it down” on devices, the same approach he took with HomeBanc’s WLANs.

Emmett Hawkins, chief technology officer at Leapfrog Services Inc., said he’s so concerned about Bluetooth security risks that he plans to use a tool called Bluewatch from AirDefense Inc. to scan every device on his network and employees’ mobile phones for the presence of the wireless technology. Hawkins will then decide which devices should be allowed to run Bluetooth and access the network at Leapfrog, an Atlanta-based vendor of managed network services.

Cracks in Bluetooth’s security capabilities first came to light in February, when researchers in the U.K. said they had developed a tool that could exploit a flaw in some phones to connect to other devices without going through the normal pairing process. Once the connection was established, the tool could download data such as address books and personal calendars.

The Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG), a trade association based in Overland Park, Kan., on Monday plans to address the technology’s vulnerability to the “bluesnarfing” attacks and another hacking technique called “bluejacking.”

The group said in a statement that Bluetooth users need to “understand the realities of the situation (and) know how to protect themselves.” Patches are available for the phones that are at risk of being attacked, said a spokesperson for the Bluetooth SIG. He added that the group also plans to detail initiatives it has under way to make Bluetooth more secure.

The spokesperson said that only a relatively small number of phones from Nokia Corp. and Sony Ericsson Mobile Communications AB are susceptible to bluesnarfing. Despite the current concerns, he claimed that Bluetooth “is more secure than any other wireless technology” because of the short transmission range of most devices and its 128-bit encryption capabilities. Neither Nokia nor Sony Ericsson returned calls.

Bluetooth security concerns will likely continue to grow as devices that use the technology proliferate, said Chris Kozup, an analyst at Meta Group Inc. Kozup said Bluetooth-equipped mobile phones can be a particularly vexing problem for IT managers because many are bought by individual employees, making them harder to manage than corporate assets such as laptops.

But as long as Bluetooth users take precautions, such as setting their devices in non-discoverable mode, the security issues shouldn’t cause many problems, said Joyce Putscher, director of the converging marketing group with In-Stat/MDR in Scottsdale, Ariz. She said the security issues aren’t as dominant in North America right now.

“We’ll likely be seeing this more in Europe immediately,” she said, adding that there are more mobile phones with Bluetooth in Europe than there are in North America. “Of course as the technology pervades that will increase.”

Bluejacking involves sending unsolicited text messages to other Bluetooth users. Karl Feilder, president and CEO of Red-M Ltd., a vendor of wireless security tools in Bucks, England, described bluejacking as “an annoyance” that can be defeated by turning off the phone function on devices, which needs to be on to allow the exchange of such messages.

Few IT managers are even aware of Bluetooth’s widespread use, Feilder said. Worldwide shipments of mobile phones and other devices that use the technology exceeded one million units per week last year, according to the Bluetooth SIG. He estimated that as many as two billion Bluetooth-equipped devices could be in use by next year.

Many Bluetooth products are short-range devices that can transmit across distances of only about 30 feet. But Jay Chaudhary, chairman of AirDefense in Alpharetta, Ga., said a large number of laptop PCs include longer-range Bluetooth radios that can work at distances of up to 300 feet. That could make them more vulnerable to attacks, he said.

AirDefense’s Bluewatch detection tool costs US$295 for use on a laptop PC. Red-M also offers a Bluetooth detection system that’s based on radio frequency sensors deployed throughout a company’s offices, with costs for an installation running between US$50,000 and US$250,000, according to Feilder.

– With files from Allison Taylor, IT World Canada

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