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Making Sense of Security

Emerging Long-Range WAN Networks Vulnerable to Hacking, Compromise

The root keys used to protect communication on LoRaWAN infrastructure can be easily obtained, IOActive says.

The fast-emerging long-range wide area networking (LoRaWAN) protocol — designed to wirelessly connect low-power, battery-operated “things” to the Internet — is dangerously vulnerable to widespread attacks and compromise, security firm IOActive said in a report Tuesday.

According to the vendor, its research shows that the encryption keys used for securing communications between devices, gateways, and network servers in LoRaWAN environments are weakly protected and easily obtainable. So, many of the assumptions about the protocol being inherently secure are completely wrong and putting organizations at risk, IOActive said.

“LoRaWAN networks are currently wide open to cyberattacks, and organizations should start taking preventive and protective measures right now before it’s too late,” says Cesar Cerrudo, CTO officer at IOActive.

The LoRa Alliance describes the LoRaWAN specification as targeting Internet of Things (IoT) requirements for secure bidirectional communications, end-to-end security, and mobility. The main appeal of the LoRaWAN protocol is that it gives organizations a way to connect sensors and other low-power devices to the Internet and communicate with them in a more secure, power-efficient, and lower-cost manner than cellular IoT options.

The LoRa Alliance projects that more than 730 million devices will be connected to LoRaWAN networks by the end of 2023, from around 123 million at the end of 2019. The protocol is already widely used in smart city applications such as parking, lighting, and metering; in smart homes for alarms and home automation; and for asset tracking, climate control, and other use cases in industrial settings. Other areas where organizations are increasingly deploying LoRaWAN include logistics, utilities, healthcare, and agriculture.

According to the LoRa Alliance, at least 133 network operators in 58 countries currently offer LoRaWAN. The list includes Orange in France, Telekom in South Korea, and KPN in the Netherlands.

LoRaWAN is an important technology being quickly adopted worldwide, with little understanding or attention being paid to its security, says Cerrudo. “The main issue is that root keys that are used to secure communications are not secret,” Cerrudo says. The encryption that is used to ensure the authenticity of devices on the network and to protect the confidentiality and integrity of communications between the device and application server can be relatively easily cracked, according to Cerrudo.

That’s because there are several relatively easy ways to obtain the encryption keys used on LoRaWAN networks, he says. “Attackers getting the keys could take these networks down and/or inject fake data affecting applications,” he says.

The IOActive report identified several ways in which an attacker could obtain the root keys used on LoRaWAN environments. Keys, for instance, can be extracted directly from devices by reverse engineering them. Attackers can also easily source code with hard-coded encryption keys from open source repositories. The hard-coded device keys are supposed to be replaced before devices are deployed, but often they are not. Other issues include easy-to-guess keys, network servers with weak and default credentials, servers with security vulnerabilities, and compromised device manufactures.

Cerrudo says these are not merely theoretical issues with LoRaWAN infrastructures, but real problems. “While we haven’t seen attacks in the wild yet, we have proven with our research that the problems are real and can be exploited,” he says. Any reasonably proficient hacker can quickly learn the protocol and associated tools to launch an attack, Cerrudo notes.

Potential Scenarios
Potential attack scenarios include denial-of-service attacks; attacks where data is intercepted and replaced with false data; and attacks that cause physical damage to critical infrastructure components.

Troublingly, few organizations that have implemented LoRaWAN have enough visibility to know if they have been attacked or are under attack, or if an encryption key has been compromised, IOActive said.

LoRaWan Specification 1.1, the latest version of the protocol, addresses some of the security issues that IOActive discovered.

For instance, instead of one root key, there are now two root keys— one for the application layer and the other for the network layer. Instead of the network server deriving session keys, a new server called the Join Server is now responsible for the task. The latest version of the protocol also uses five session keys instead of two. “They made attacks a bit more difficult since you need to get an additional key for application level attacks, but it’s not impossible,” Cerrudo says.

Unfortunately, a majority of organizations that have deployed LoRaWAN are currently still on older legacy versions of the protocol. Devices connected to these networks cannot be updated to new versions because of hardware limitations. “We don’t know about incidents,” involving LoRaWAN networks, Cerrudo says. “But currently, organizations don’t have tools to detect incidents,” he says.

To help organizations assess their vulnerability, IOActive has released an auditing framework consisting of penetration-testing and auditing tools for LoRaWAN infrastructure.

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Jai Vijayan is a seasoned technology reporter with over 20 years of experience in IT trade journalism. He was most recently a Senior Editor at Computerworld, where he covered information security and data privacy issues for the publication. Over the course of his 20-year … View Full Bio

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