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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.

Related Content:

Check out The Edge, Dark Reading's new section for features, threat data, and in-depth perspectives. Today's top story: "7 Steps to IoT Security in 2020."

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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User Rank: Apprentice
1/30/2020 | 3:07:17 PM
Re: Encryption
The encryption is two layers of 128-bit AES. Not really outdated. I assume you mean "keys" rather than "Keats" ?

I was a bit surprised after reading through the entire article that most of the vulnerabilities are not unique to LoRaWAN. For example:
  • Physical security and reverse engineering of a device. First, it's nothing new, and it's already being handled in newer devices using "secure elements" to protect the keys, preventing them from being retrieved even through a physical attack.
  • Fixed keys being stolen. LoRaWAN provides two ways of joining a network: essentially pre-shared keys, and keys that are renegotiated upon joining (OTAA: over-the-air authentication). The first method is never recommended for any production devices. Anyone releasing such a device simply hasn't read the specs, or anything else regarding LoRaWAN joins. 
  • Default passwords unchanged, etc. Again, nothing unique to LoRaWAN. Most of this type of issue is at the network or system level, regardless of wireless protocol

I'm glad they acknowledge that the v1.1 LoRaWAN spec addresses most of these issues. I was teaching on most of these vulnerabilities as early as 2Q 2018, and v1.1 was released later that year. Yes, it does take time for the changes to progagate into working systems, but that's the nature of rapidly-changing technology, and v1.1 has some pretty dramatic changes/improvements from the prior version.
User Rank: Apprentice
1/30/2020 | 2:52:21 PM
Re: Sensors
When it's done in hardware, it doesn't take much power to do the encryption required for LoRaWAN. Many devices commercially available will run for 2-5 years or more on a pair of off-the-shelf alkaline C cells, or even 5-10 years on a 3.6V AA-size lithium battery. The key factors are limiting the frequency and duration of transmissions, and conserving power when the device is idle. Since NOT encrypting isn't an option for LoRaWAN, they've made it feasible even for low-power, limited-memory devices.
User Rank: Apprentice
1/30/2020 | 2:45:37 PM
Re: Older devices
Many LoRaWAN devices rely on a separate chip/chipset that handles the LoRaWAN communications at the MAC and physical layers, and the MCU controlling the actual device may not be able to update the firmware inside the LoRa chip (separate from the MCU's own firmware). And, of course, many IoT devices were never made to handle updates of the device's main firmware itself, but this is changing as we collectively focus more on security. Newer parts of the LoRaWAN spec are providing mechanisms for firmware update over LoRa. This was demoed at the LoRa Alliance conference over 2 years ago. So while it's true that older devices won't be able to support newer aspects of the protocol, this is hardly a new scenario in technology in general. How many of us have a 10-year-old cell phone that can still communicate on today's cell networks?
User Rank: Apprentice
1/30/2020 | 3:16:40 AM
Re: Older devices
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User Rank: Apprentice
1/29/2020 | 4:07:43 PM


I think you either need to turn in your engineering degree for a refund or stick to writing obituaties and the weather report. I have never read so many falsehoods and generalizations in the same article about LoRaWAN. Did Verizon or ATT fund your article ? Before you start spreading falsehoods maybe read the LoRaWAN specification front to cover. Then read it again. And again. And then compare the latest version to the first version. Yes, the first version left some openings for various attacks, but they all have been fixed. And nobody builds devices to the first version of the spec anymore. 

In your article you fail to even name the encryption that is used: "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" LoRaWAN uses 128-bit AES encryption for both the Network Session and the Application (user data) Sessions. Stating that this type of encryption can be relatively easily cracked is a joke!

So even if you got you hands on a set of keys, from for example a device that is cofigured as APB (Activation by Personalization) instead of the much more secure methode of OTAA one can inflict no damage on a Network from a single end device. LoRaWAN IoT devices do not have a MB/s TCP/IP pipleline to the cloud. You can't flood the Network server with 100,000s of message from an IoT device. You can send at most between 11 and 242 bytes...every FEW SECONDS. You have to understand that an LPWAN IoT network is not based on TCP/IP.

I can go on for a while but this article is so poorly written that it is not worth my time. Bone up on LoRaWAN and come back with some real substance!

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