Laptops, PCs Open to Cyber-Attack Through Wireless Mice, Keyboards

Popular brands of wireless mice and keyboards could allow an attacker to send commands to a user’s system, according to researchers.

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MouseJack 2

The communications between hundreds of millions of wireless mice and keyboards and the systems to which they are connected could be exploited to allow an attacker to take control of a targeted laptop or desktop PC, researchers from communications security firm Bastille said on Feb. 23.

The attack, dubbed “MouseJacking,” exploits the weak security of the custom communications protocols used by many wireless mice and keyboards, such as those from vendors Logitech, Microsoft and Dell, the company stated.

An attacker could, from 100 meters away or more, use the attack to send mouse clicks and key strikes to the targeted systems and by opening windows and issuing commands, essentially take control of the victim's computer, Chris Rouland, founder and chief technology officer at Bastille, told eWEEK.

“It really only takes a $15 dongle and about 15 lines of Python code and you can get complete control of the target system,” he said.

Bastille's report comes as security researchers continue to warn that the widespread adoption of devices that connect to each other or the Internet–the so-called Internet of things–will dramatically increase the exposure of both consumers and companies to cyberattacks.

Bastille’s research targets one of the most significant vectors of attacks—the peripherals used to send data to a computer system.

The attack, however, only affects peripherals that do not use the Bluetooth standard to communicate between devices. Many companies have created their own communications protocols to avoid licensing fees and to attempt to reduce power consumption, Rouland said.

Bastille’s attack takes advantage of poorly implemented communications protocols between the USB dongle that plugs into a computer system and the mouse or keyboard that communicates with that dongle, said Marc Newlin, a security engineer at Bastille, who found the MouseJack vulnerability.

All the vendors encrypt the information going between the keyboard and the dongle, but none of the vendors secure the data between the mouse and the dongle, Newlin said. In these cases, an attacker can just send unencrypted packets and have the system accept the data.

Typically, there are two types of attacks, he said.

“The dongle is expecting encrypted keystrokes from the keyboard, but in some cases it will accept unencrypted keystrokes,” he said. “In that case, the attacker can spoof a keyboard and send unencrypted keystrokes and they are accepted as if the attacker was sending encrypted keystrokes.”

Another scenario allows an attacker to send unencrypted packets, masquerading as a mouse, but sending keystrokes instead.

The security issues arise because the vendors did not adequately secure the protocols, Rouland said. The maker of the most common wireless chip for such devices, Nordic Semiconductor, provides adequate tools to implement communications securely, but vendors fail to code the software correctly.

“When companies implement their own proprietary encryption schemes, it screams red flags to security researchers,” he said. “Because they typically screw it up—and that is certainly the case here.”

Because most companies do not allow updates to the peripherals' firmware, solving the issue will require that users replace the devices. Logitech, the largest third-party maker of peripherals, does allow users to update their software and has already released a patch.

Still, the fact that most people are not accustomed to updating their mouse or keyboard software will likely make patching, or replacing the devices, a slow process, Rouland said.

“From a practical perspective, I think we will see this vulnerability exist for quite a long time, and it affects both enterprises and consumers,” he said.

Robert Lemos

Robert Lemos

Robert Lemos is an award-winning freelance journalist who has covered information security, cybercrime and technology's impact on society for almost two decades. A former research engineer, he's...