What Is Bluesnarfing?

Alex Newth

Bluesnarfing is a type of hacking attack that uses a Bluetooth connection to gain access and steal data from a wireless device.

Bluetooth® is a high-speed, close-range wireless technology that allows data to be exchanged between devices, such as mobile phones, laptops, tablets, and desktop computers. Although Bluetooth technology has a huge range of useful applications, it has historically been associated with certain data security vulnerabilities.

In a bluesnarfing attack, a hacker exploits vulnerabilities in Bluetooth security in order to download confidential data from a victim’s phone.
In a bluesnarfing attack, a hacker exploits vulnerabilities in Bluetooth security in order to download confidential data from a victim’s phone.

What Is a Bluesnarfing Attack?

In a bluesnarfing attack, a cybercriminal or hacker gains access to the data on a victim’s phone. This is possible when the targeted phone has Bluetooth turned on and is “discoverable,” meaning that nearby devices can locate and pair with it. The hacker exploits vulnerabilities within the target device’s object exchange (OBEX) protocol, which is used to exchange information between devices and is an essential component of Bluetooth.

In a bluebugging attack, the hacker is able to seize control of the phone’s functions.
In a bluebugging attack, the hacker is able to seize control of the phone’s functions.

To pull off this type of attack, a hacker pairs his or her mobile phone with the victim’s phone, allowing the hacker to access and download the data from the paired phone. This is typically carried out with a utility such Bluediving, which identifies susceptibilities in nearby devices. Experienced programmers can create their own bluesnarfing tools, download one from the dark web, or even hire someone else to carry out the attack.

The victim of a bluesnarfing attack is likely to be unaware that a hacker has gained access to his or her device.
The victim of a bluesnarfing attack is likely to be unaware that a hacker has gained access to his or her device.

Typically, the hacker’s aim is to steal sensitive data from the targeted phone, such as emails, text messages, contact lists, calendar entries, passwords, photos, or videos. In some cases, the hacker can even alter the data stored on the target device. In a bluesnarfing attack, the owner of the target phone is usually unaware that anything has happened to his or her device.

Unless the hacker has specialized equipment, he or she must be within 30 feet (10 m) of the victim’s phone for the attack to succeed. “Bluesniping” is a type of bluesnarfing in which the hacker uses equipment to increase the range of the paired phone, allowing it to attack devices that are located farther away than the standard Bluetooth range.

Did You Know?

  • Bluesnarfing is illegal in most countries, as it is an extreme violation of privacy.
  • The first instance of bluesnarfing was recorded in 2003, during the security testing of Bluetooth-enabled devices.
  • Computers and other Bluetooth-enabled devices can also be the targets of bluesnarfing, but their complex security systems make this less of a threat than with phones.
  • The term “snarfing” is used by computer programmers to refer to copying data over a network without appropriate permission.

How Can You Prevent Bluesnarfing?

Phones that are “discoverable” are the most likely to become victims of a bluesnarfing attack, as this allows a hacker to locate the phone’s media access control (MAC) address.

The only way to completely eliminate the risk of a bluesnarfing attack is by turning off Bluetooth, because the hacker will not be able to access the connection. However, there are some other ways to drastically reduce the likelihood of a bluesnarfing attack.

  • Short of disabling Bluetooth entirely, the best way to avoid becoming the victim of a bluesnarfing attack is to make sure your phone is set to hidden or non-discoverable, especially when in a public place. Although this does not make your device invulnerable to potential attacks, if the phone is set to hidden, then the hacker cannot see the MAC address. Determined hackers could still get into the phone by guessing the address through a brute force attack, but this would take millions of attempts.
  • Do not accept pairing requests from unfamiliar devices.
  • To discourage bluesnarfing attacks, make sure to utilize all of your phone’s security features, such as creating a lengthy PIN number or turning on two-factor authentication.
  • Install an anti-bluesnarfing utility that notifies you of unauthorized connections between your phone and any nearby devices.
  • Developments in mobile software have rendered new devices significantly less vulnerable to bluesnarfing attacks than earlier models released when Bluetooth technology was less secure. If you are concerned about a bluesnarfing attack, consider switching to a newer device.

Bluesnarfing vs. Bluejacking vs. Bluebugging

Bluesnarfing, bluejacking, and bluebugging are all cyber attacks that can be carried out on Bluetooth-compatible devices, but they have some significant differences in their goals and implementation.

Bluejacking

Bluesnarfing is sometimes confused with bluejacking, which is another type of Bluetooth hacking. The main difference between bluejacking and bluesnarfing is that the former involves the transmission of data to the targeted device, whereas the latter involves data theft.

Bluejacking typically entails sending unsolicited messages or advertisements to the target device and is regarded as less serious than bluesnarfing. It is far easier to carry out a bluejacking attack than a bluesnarfing attack, and was frequently used in the early days of Bluetooth as a practical joke.

Bluebugging

Bluebugging is a type of attack that goes beyond the data theft inherent in bluesnarfing. In a bluebugging attack, the hacker actively seizes control of the features of the targeted device, such as making phone calls, setting up call forwarding, or sending text messages. Bluebugging allows the hacker to eavesdrop on phone calls without the victim being aware that his or her phone has been “bugged.”

Although the idea of becoming the victim of a bluesnarfing attack sounds scary, the good news is that Bluetooth security has significantly improved since the early 2000s. In most cases, setting your phone to “hidden” or “non-discoverable” offers valuable protection against potential hackers.

Bluejacking is a less serious type of Bluetooth-related attack in which unsolicited messages or advertisements are sent to a targeted phone.
Bluejacking is a less serious type of Bluetooth-related attack in which unsolicited messages or advertisements are sent to a targeted phone.

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Discussion Comments

Logicfest

While some have complained about Apple's decision to restrict the heck out of the iPhone's Bluetooth capabilities, at least that has cut down on the ability of people to exploit the phone's Bluetooth connection. That locked-down Bluetooth access on iPhones may be why Android-powered devices seem less secure by comparison.

Of course, it's a good policy to turn off Bluetooth when you're not using it. That simple move will also cut down on battery usage.

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