Are Your Wireless Gadgets Vulnerable to Hacking?

February 26, 2016 • Devin Partida


Are your wireless gadgets vulnerable to cyberattack?

Hackers are constantly looking for new ways to breach a system, through both hardware and software vulnerabilities. That’s why researchers and white hat hackers — the good guys — use pre-emptive measures to find these vulnerabilities. They hack into a system, bring attention to problem areas, and hopefully allow companies to fix the issue in a software patch before someone unscrupulous can take advantage.

As it turns out, a variety of wireless mice and keyboards have a gaping vulnerability that allows for them to be hacked even at a distance, opening up the machine they are plugged into for attack. After gaining access to a remote computer in this way, someone could install some pretty nasty malware.

The vulnerability was discovered by a researcher from Bastille named Mark Newlin.

Susceptible to Attack

The problem stems from the fact that the wireless protocol used to transmit the signal between the peripherals and their receiver, which is itself plugged into a computer, is unencrypted. This means that they are susceptible to attack, particularly from keystroke injection methods.

All one needs to carry out such an attack is a remote computer — like a laptop — equipped with a USB wireless dongle.

The dongle can be modified to transmit the keystrokes to the remote machine, and since it only took Newlin between a few days and weeks to reverse-engineer the wireless protocols, it’s reasonable to assume the same for black hat hackers — the bad guys.

To gain access, the attacker spoofs the host computer’s keyboard and sends unencrypted packets of data to the dongle, which allow them to type commands. Essentially, it’s like sitting in front of the keyboard at the host computer, except they can be hundreds of yards away.

In fact, the remote machine can be as far as 100 yards away, as long as there is a direct line-of-sight between it and the host computer. That distance can be increased tremendously if the hacker uses an auxiliary antenna. The attacks can even be carried out through walls and windows, as they rely on a wireless protocol.

All Beware the MouseJack

This type of attack is being called a MouseJack by the researchers who discovered it.

Products from brands such as Amazon, Dell, HP, Gigabyte, Lenovo, Microsoft and Logitech all have been tested and were found to be vulnerable. Worse yet, Bastille says there may be a lot more peripherals from unnamed brands that are also affected, which they didn’t get to test.

Some brands, like Logitech, have already issued a patch for the vulnerability, while others have promised to do so.

A Microsoft PR rep said, “Microsoft has a customer commitment to investigate reported security issues and will proactively update impacted devices as soon as possible.”

What Should I Watch Out for?

All that aside, in order for this type of attack to work, the host machines would have to be logged in already, and anyone using them would likely be away. This is because if they were indeed at the computer, they would see the keystrokes being entered by the attacker and know something was going on.

If you’re worried your computer might be vulnerable, the best thing to do is to log off your session anytime you’re going to be away from your computer. This goes for all machines, at home, work or elsewhere.

While it’s highly unlikely a hacker will be able to breach your system in the time it takes you to get a cup of coffee from the kitchen, you’re better off safe than sorry.

Warning Signs of a Hack

It sounds silly, but if you notice your keyboard sending strokes to the computer that you haven’t typed, it’s highly likely your system has been breached. Another thing to watch out for when using your system is if your mouse hangs before making the correct selection. For example, if you’re moving the mouse to start a certain app and it pauses, jitters or the computer seems to hang for a few moments before it moves and chooses the appropriate selection, there’s a possibility you’ve been hacked.

It’s important to note the mouse hang-up can also happen due to a system overload, like when you’re running too many programs at once. Sadly, you can see it is difficult to discern when this type of attack has happened, at least until the remote hacker starts interacting with your computer.

That’s why your best bet is to log off anytime you know you’re going to be away from your keyboard. Furthermore, keep an eye out for important software and firmware updates if you use one of the aforementioned keyboard brands. These companies will eventually release an update that patches the vulnerability, hopefully sooner rather than later.