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LoRaWAN security warning for smart cities

New research warns that in extreme cases, a compromised network could mask physical attacks against infrastructure or cause industrial equipment containing volatile substances to break, combust or even explode.


Millions of connected devices used in smart cities, industrial IoT and smart homes could be hijacked to disrupt services, damage equipment and even cover up attacks against infrastructure, according to new research.


A new paper from security services and research firm IOActive claims that the LoRaWAN protocol has a host of cybersecurity issues that could put network users at risk of attack. Such attacks could cause widespread disruption or in extreme cases even put lives at risk, it warns.


The LoRaWAN networks susceptible to hacking: common cybersecurity problems, how to detect and prevent them researchers found the root keys used for encrypting communications between smart devices, gateways and network servers are often poorly protected and easily obtainable.


This could leave the network vulnerable to malicious hackers who could be able to compromise the data flowing to and from connected devices. Potential actions could include:


  • Denial of Service attacks: once hackers have the encryption keys, they could gain access to the network and cause DoS (Denial of Service) attacks, disrupting communications between connected devices and the network server, so companies can’t receive any data.
  • False data: attackers could intercept communications and replace these with false data, such as fake sensor and meter readings. This could create several issues by allowing hackers to hide malicious activity or cause industrial equipment to damage itself, potentially halting operations and putting company infrastructure at risk.

LoRaWAN, a Long Range Wide Area Networking protocol, is designed to allow low-powered devices to communicate with Internet-connected applications over long-range wireless connections. It is being adopted across the world in cities as well as industrial IoT, smart homes, smart utilities, vehicle tracking and healthcare, due to its low power usage and long-range capabilities: a single gateway (antenna) can cover entire cities or hundreds of square miles.


Growing use


The LoRaWAN market was valued at $610 million in 2018 and is projected to reach $12 billion by 2026, representing a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 47.2 per cent, largely driven by smart city applications such as smart buildings, environment monitoring, parking, street lighting, smart metering, fleet management and more.


The LoRaWAN Market was valued at $610 million in 2018 and is projected to reach $12 billion by 2026.


In April 2019 there were more than 113 LoRaWAN networks in 55 countries at various stages of commercial deployment, according to the membership trade body LoRa Alliance. Semtech Corporation, which provides LoRa technology, reports that by the same date, the cumulative number of LoRa end nodes reached 97 million.


Detecting attacks


“Organisations are blindly trusting LoRaWAN because it’s encrypted, but that encryption can be easily bypassed if hackers can get their hands on the keys – which our research shows they can do in several ways, with relative ease, ” said Cesar Cerrudo, CTO at IOActive. “Once hackers have access, there are many things they could potentially do – they could prevent utilities firms from taking smart meter readings, stop logistics companies from tracking vehicles, or prohibit hospitals from receiving readings from smart equipment.


"In extreme cases, a compromised network could be fed false device readings to cover up physical attacks against infrastructure, like a gas pipeline."


"In extreme cases, a compromised network could be fed false device readings to cover up physical attacks against infrastructure, like a gas pipeline. Or to prompt industrial equipment containing volatile substances to overcorrect; causing it to break, combust or even explode," he added.


IOActive researchers also concluded that there is currently no way for an organisation to know if a LoRaWAN network is being or has been attacked, or if an encryption key has been compromised. With this in mind, the company has released a LoRaWAN Auditing Framework to allow users to audit the security of their infrastructure and reduce the impact of an attack.


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