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Communications Between Smartwatches and Phones Exposed to Hack Attacks: Researchers

Researchers at Bitdefender have conducted some experiments to find out just how difficult it is for a hacker to intercept the data sent between smartphones and smartwatches.

Tech companies are rushing to launch smartwatches and smartbands, and many people are eager to try them out. However, few of the vendors focus on making sure the devices are secure.

Smartwatches are capable of displaying notifications for emails, SMS messages, incoming calls, and various third-party apps, such as Google Hangouts and Facebook Messenger. Bitdefender's experiment shows that many of these communications are exposed to attacks. 

The security firm performed tests on a Google Nexus 4 smartphone running Android L Preview and a Samsung Gear Live smartwatch.

The devices communicate with each other via Bluetooth, which means that an attacker has to be in proximity of his target. However, once this obstacle is overcome, it is relatively easy to intercept Bluetooth communications between the phone and the smartwatch.

Data obfuscated by Android Wear, the Android operating system designed for smartwatches and other wearables, is protected only by a 6-digit PIN which is set during the initial pairing of the devices. Researchers have demonstrated that the 6-digit code can be easily brute-forced with the aid of widely available tools.

"We’re pretty sure that, if someone were to do more in-depth research into how the Wear obfuscation actually works, we would soon end up with some fascinating exploit packs. Weaponizing this is only a matter of how much someone would have to gain from reading your conversation, even in close proximity," Bitdefender said in its report.

As a solution to this problem, the security company recommends the use of near-field communications (NFC) for transferring data between smartphones and wearables. The problem with this method is that not all phones and wearable devices include the feature.

The use of stronger passwords during the pairing process is also an option, but it can be difficult for smartwatch users to type a complex string on the device. Application-level encryption can also mitigate such attacks, but this should be implemented by Google or OEMs, and the downside is that a secondary layer of encryption would have a negative impact on battery life.

Earlier this month, the Bluetooth Special Interest Group officially adopted version 4.2 of the Bluetooth core specification, which is said to be not only faster, but also more secure compared to previous versions.

Bitdefender says it hasn't had the chance to analyze the new Bluetooth version. However, the company has pointed out in an email that their experiments haven't targeted over-the-air Bluetooth communications, which are encrypted by the device's baseband co-processor. Instead, researchers targeted traffic before it was sent to the baseband co-processor.

 Bitdefender has published a short video of its experiment which is embedded below.

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Eduard Kovacs (@EduardKovacs) is a contributing editor at SecurityWeek. He worked as a high school IT teacher for two years before starting a career in journalism as Softpedia’s security news reporter. Eduard holds a bachelor’s degree in industrial informatics and a master’s degree in computer techniques applied in electrical engineering.