Bluetooth headphone hacking: should you be worried? – Cosmos

December 11, 2021 by No Comments

US Vice President Kamala Harris made waves recently, when an article from Politico’s ‘West Wing Playbook’ reported that she refuses to use Bluetooth headphones, believing them to be vulnerable to attack by malicious hackers. The article described the Vice President as “Bluetooth phobic”, but is there more than paranoia at play here? Is Bluetooth headphone hacking really a thing?

Bluetooth technology has streamlined our gadgets, stripping away most of the troublesome wires and jacks that are forever getting tangled in the bottoms of our bags and in the far reaches of our drawers. But it does come with a cost – limited by a short operational range, and designed to be used only between devices in close proximity, Bluetooth technologies have tended to create a lackadaisical attitude towards security.

What do experts say about Bluetooth headphone hacking?

“The risk is significant,” says Christophe Doche, Associate Dean at the Australian Institute of Business Intelligence. “Bluetooth is one of these technologies that was initially designed without too much concern for security.” 

Credit: Drew Angerer / Staff / Getty Images

This is particularly true for innocuous add-ons, such as headphones.

Different devices are generally equipped with different security features, with the most stringent protections found where you’d expect them – in computers and laptops. But in headphones? Not so much.

“Bluetooth headphones are typically fairly ‘dumb’ devices,” says Paul Haskell-Dowland, Professor of Cyber Security Practice and Associate Dean for Computing and Security in the School of Science at Edith Cowan University.

We don’t tend to bother encrypting devices such as headphones, he says.

“Most headsets can be simply connected by pressing a button on the headset to initiate the ‘sync’, or may even be selectable directly on the phone with no further interaction required,” he says.

Even so, it’s not particularly likely that our headphones will provide the ‘crack’ through which attackers can directly infiltrate, and we generally have little to fear from enjoying a wireless groove session.

“When simply listening to music, such headphones don’t really represent any significant risk,” says Haskell-Dowland.

Instead, their biggest vulnerability stems from their susceptibility to eavesdropping.

How can others eavesdrop on your Bluetooth headphones?

This is because we do much more than listen to our favourite tunes on our headphones – they are routinely used for phone calls, and increasingly for remote conferencing. As a radio-frequency device, there are opportunities to capture the radio signals and eavesdrop into communications.

“A competent and determined attacker could take advantage of Bluetooth headphones and protocols, to implement, for instance, a man-in-the-middle attack, effectively intercepting all the traffic coming in and out the headphones,” says Doche.

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Haskell-Dowland expresses similar concerns, but reiterates that much of the threat is context-dependent.

“Given that a lot of Bluetooth headset use is undertaken in public settings, the concerns are perhaps no different to being overheard by the person sat next to you on the train – although capturing the Bluetooth audio would include all parties in the call,” he says.

This means that any sensitive information divulged is only ever as secure as the weakest point in the chain. You can take measures to guard security at your end, but it only takes one group member wearing Bluetooth headphones to open the whole conversation to prying ears.

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