In Depth

Is Kamala Harris right to be wary of Bluetooth?

Vice president insists on using wired headphones for security reasons, report claims

Kamala Harris is “Bluetooth-phobic” and insists on shunning the technology in favour of wired headphones for security reasons, it has emerged.

Three former campaign aides told Politico’s West Wing Playbook that the US vice president “has long felt that Bluetooth headphones are a security risk”, adding that “while a growing number of consumers are going wireless, the vice president is sticking with the classics”.

In her now-infamous “we did it, Joe” election day video, the VP, who was in the middle of a run at the time, can be seen holding a tangle of white headphone wires in her left hand. 

This technical wariness dates back a few years. An aide working on her 2016 Senate bid told Politico that Harris “often preferred texting to email for security reasons”, while another said that she refused to let people wait in her office alone when she was attorney general of California.

Seemingly unimpressed by Harris’s vigilance, the news site questioned whether someone “who travels with the nuclear football” should be “spending time untangling her headphone wires”. So is Harris unduly paranoid, or does Bluetooth carry real security risks?

‘Serially insecure’

It certainly does, according to writer and developer KG Orphanides on Wired. Bluetooth, a type of radio technology, is “serially insecure”, with issues ranging from “low-grade privacy risks to major security breaches”.

One major vulnerability is the fact that you can pair to a device if it is on and you’re in close range, which is usually within about ten metres. If you’re doing something “particularly sensitive involving Bluetooth”, Orphanides said, “you should be aware of your surroundings for more than just over-the-shoulder password snoopers”.

In July, the US National Security Agency (NSA) released a cybersecurity guidance document focused on securing wireless devices in public settings. “In addition to WiFi, cyber actors can compromise other common wireless technologies, such as Bluetooth”, it read.

According to the NSA, keeping a device’s Bluetooth on in a public setting “can pose a cybersecurity risk”. Potential hackers “can scan for active Bluetooth signals, potentially giving them access to information about the targeted device” and then “leverage that information to compromise the device”, the agency explained. 

Bluejacking, bluesnarfing and bluebugging

The NSA said that various techniques exist to send, collect or manipulate data and services on a device using Bluetooth.

These techniques include bluejacking (defined by The Guardian as “a technical trick whereby one Bluetooth device sends an unsolicited message to another”), bluesnarfing (where hackers access and steal information stored in a device such as contacts, emails and photos), and bluebugging (when an attacker takes full control of a device). 

In 2017, another form of Bluetooth vulnerability – known as BlueBorne – was uncovered by the internet security firm Armis. According to The New York Times, BlueBorne exposed “billions of connected devices”, from Amazon’s Echo smart speakers to cars with Bluetooth, to the possibility of being hijacked by hackers. 

‘Needn’t be a massive concern’

So what can one do to keep their Bluetooth-compatible devices safe from cyber-attacks?

There are a few simple steps recommended by the NSA, including monitoring Bluetooth connections “by periodically checking what devices are currently connected to the device”, not using Bluetooth to communicate passwords or sensitive data, and disabling Bluetooth when not in use. 

It’s important to remember that for most people, Bluetooth security “needn’t be a massive concern”, said Newsweek. But it does “make sense for somebody in Harris’ position to be extra vigilant”.

Byron Tau, a journalist at The Wall Street Journal, agreed. “Bluetooth peripherals are a security risk,” he wrote on Twitter. “If there are flaws in the security, they can be compromised. Most people don’t have to worry about these things but high level federal officials should.”

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