Home > Articles > Cisco Network Technology > General Networking > ZigBee Wireless Security: A New Age Penetration Tester's Toolkit

ZigBee Wireless Security: A New Age Penetration Tester's Toolkit

  • Date: Jan 9, 2012.

Article Description

Penetration testers have been focusing on wireless technologies for over a decade now, and one protocol that can arguably be placed at the top of the list is the 802.15.4 protocol that ZigBee wireless rides on. New tools and techniques are being developed by penetration testers to validate the security and configuration of ZigBee-enabled devices. Brad Bowers takes a closer look at the ZigBee protocol, some of the attacks that have been leveraged against it, and the security tools that penetration testers can use.

Like this article? We recommend

Network Security First-Step

Network Security First-Step, 2nd Edition

$29.59 (Save 20%)

Security Issues

Security Issues

If you are an information security professional, your spidey senses are probably tingling[md]and frankly they should! It doesn't take a lot of imagination to think about how these real-life implementations of ZigBee radios could be used by malicious actors to cause life-threatening events or significant harm to individuals or our infrastructure.

At first glance, this may seems like your traditional Fear, Uncertainty, or Doubt (FUD) about the risks associated with ZigBee radios. When you consider some of the actual attacks that have been leveraged against real organizations, however, you start to get an eye-raising dose of reality.

Attacks against ZigBee

ZigBee wireless attacks and security has attracted a lot of interest by government- and industry-security professionals as well as the hacker community. Each is looking at the security capabilities of the 802.15.4 protocol as well as how manufacturers are implementing the ZigBee radios into products and equipment. Often it is the "implementations" part of the equation that is causing most of the security risks. This is clearly evident in the types of attacks used against the devices.

ZigBee and the 802.15.4 framework it rides on were designed with security in mind, but as we have all learned, security is only effective if it's implemented properly. While there are numerous types of attacks that have been successfully leveraged against ZigBee devices, they generally fall into three categories: physical attacks, key attacks, and replay and injection attacks.

Physical Attacks

If a knowledgeable attacker can gain physical access to a device containing a ZigBee radio, chances are good that they can compromise it. What makes physical attacks so effective is being able to interact physically with the device to obtain an encryption key used by the target ZigBee network. Many ZigBee radios use a hard-coded encryption key that is loaded in RAM memory when the device is powered.

Since these keys are typically written (flashed) on all the devices in a ZigBee network, it's highly unlikely that the keys will ever be changed. Knowing this, attackers can utilize special serial interfaces on the ZigBee device to attempt to capture the encryption keys as those keys are moved from flash to RAM during power up.

There are numerous low-cost and open-source tools that make this form of attack within the grasps of any attacker. Two of the most popular are Bus Pirate and GoodFet.

The Bus Pirate and GoodFet interface boards provide support of numerous industry standard serial protocols, including 1-wire, JTAG, SPI, and asynchronous serial. Once physically connected to a ZigBee device through a simple serial interface such as a Bus Pirate, an attacker can unravel the security of an entire ZigBee network and potentially intercept and alter data.

Key Attacks

Other forms of key attacks are possible by utilizing remote means to obtain encryption keys. ZigBee radios often use one of two encryption key methodologies to ensure that devices have the appropriate keys to talk to each other. These methodologies are known as pre-shared keying and Over the Air (OTA) key delivery. Larger, more sophisticated ZigBee networks will typically utilize OTA for security and ease of updating.

Did I say "for security"? Unfortunately, this methodology can be attacked by having a device that mimics a node on the ZigBee network and collects the network's wireless transmissions. The collected packets can be further analyzed or potentially decrypted using free and open-source equipment.

Since there is minimal session checking built into the 802.15.4 protocol and currently no intrusion-detection capabilities, this type of attack is nearly impossible to detect.

One toolset that is very effective for this type of key analysis is called the KillerBee framework, which was created by Joshua Wright, a noted wireless security expert, and has been made freely available to everyone. KillerBee is really a suite of hardware and software tools that allow sophisticated interception, analysis, and even transmission of 802.15.4 packets. The software included in KillerBee is a collection of Python scripts that are easily modified and can be built upon to create even more capabilities and interaction with ZigBee radios. The hardware portion of the framework requires a specially programmed ZigBee radio, but don't let that fool you into thinking they are hard to obtain.

While several low-cost ZigBee radios are supported, the recommended device of choice is the RZ Raven AVR, which can be obtained online for approximately $40. This puts the hardware and programs well within the reach of security researchers and malicious hackers alike.

An attacker using a combination of hardware- and software-based tools to perform their illicit actions has the obvious advantage of not needing to physically connect to the device to perform an attack. This makes it extremely unlikely that the attack will be discovered and even less likely that the attacker will be caught. To make matters worse, an attacker could use specially crafted high-powered transmitters or special Yagi antennas so the attacker could potentially be a great distance away from the devices they attempting to compromise.

Replay and Injection Attacks

One final type of attack we'll discuss can utilize key-based attacks blended with packet replay and/or injection attacks to trick the ZigBee device into performing unauthorized actions. ZigBee radios are susceptible to these types of attacks because of the lightweight design of the protocol, which has very minimal replay protection. A simple scenario will help drive the point home.

Bob, our malicious user, uses a ZigBee radio that is collecting packets transmitted from a target ZigBee network. While Bob may not be able to decode the packets per se, he knows enough about the system to know that the target node controls the water flow for a cooling system.

All Bob has to do in this case is to replay the captured packets back to other nodes on the ZigBee network mimicking the originating node. Since there is minimal session checking performed by the ZigBee radios, the network will think the traffic is legitimate and respond as if the commands came from a valid node. A spinoff of this type of attack was used at the 7th annual Mid-Atlantic Collegiate Cyber Defense Challenge. A more comprehensive write up of the event can be found here in the articles of InformIT.

5. Penetration Testers Toolkit | Next Section Previous Section

Cisco Press Promotional Mailings & Special Offers

I would like to receive exclusive offers and hear about products from Cisco Press and its family of brands. I can unsubscribe at any time.


Pearson Education, Inc., 221 River Street, Hoboken, New Jersey 07030, (Pearson) presents this site to provide information about Cisco Press products and services that can be purchased through this site.

This privacy notice provides an overview of our commitment to privacy and describes how we collect, protect, use and share personal information collected through this site. Please note that other Pearson websites and online products and services have their own separate privacy policies.

Collection and Use of Information

To conduct business and deliver products and services, Pearson collects and uses personal information in several ways in connection with this site, including:

Questions and Inquiries

For inquiries and questions, we collect the inquiry or question, together with name, contact details (email address, phone number and mailing address) and any other additional information voluntarily submitted to us through a Contact Us form or an email. We use this information to address the inquiry and respond to the question.

Online Store

For orders and purchases placed through our online store on this site, we collect order details, name, institution name and address (if applicable), email address, phone number, shipping and billing addresses, credit/debit card information, shipping options and any instructions. We use this information to complete transactions, fulfill orders, communicate with individuals placing orders or visiting the online store, and for related purposes.


Pearson may offer opportunities to provide feedback or participate in surveys, including surveys evaluating Pearson products, services or sites. Participation is voluntary. Pearson collects information requested in the survey questions and uses the information to evaluate, support, maintain and improve products, services or sites; develop new products and services; conduct educational research; and for other purposes specified in the survey.

Contests and Drawings

Occasionally, we may sponsor a contest or drawing. Participation is optional. Pearson collects name, contact information and other information specified on the entry form for the contest or drawing to conduct the contest or drawing. Pearson may collect additional personal information from the winners of a contest or drawing in order to award the prize and for tax reporting purposes, as required by law.


If you have elected to receive email newsletters or promotional mailings and special offers but want to unsubscribe, simply email information@ciscopress.com.

Service Announcements

On rare occasions it is necessary to send out a strictly service related announcement. For instance, if our service is temporarily suspended for maintenance we might send users an email. Generally, users may not opt-out of these communications, though they can deactivate their account information. However, these communications are not promotional in nature.

Customer Service

We communicate with users on a regular basis to provide requested services and in regard to issues relating to their account we reply via email or phone in accordance with the users' wishes when a user submits their information through our Contact Us form.

Other Collection and Use of Information

Application and System Logs

Pearson automatically collects log data to help ensure the delivery, availability and security of this site. Log data may include technical information about how a user or visitor connected to this site, such as browser type, type of computer/device, operating system, internet service provider and IP address. We use this information for support purposes and to monitor the health of the site, identify problems, improve service, detect unauthorized access and fraudulent activity, prevent and respond to security incidents and appropriately scale computing resources.

Web Analytics

Pearson may use third party web trend analytical services, including Google Analytics, to collect visitor information, such as IP addresses, browser types, referring pages, pages visited and time spent on a particular site. While these analytical services collect and report information on an anonymous basis, they may use cookies to gather web trend information. The information gathered may enable Pearson (but not the third party web trend services) to link information with application and system log data. Pearson uses this information for system administration and to identify problems, improve service, detect unauthorized access and fraudulent activity, prevent and respond to security incidents, appropriately scale computing resources and otherwise support and deliver this site and its services.

Cookies and Related Technologies

This site uses cookies and similar technologies to personalize content, measure traffic patterns, control security, track use and access of information on this site, and provide interest-based messages and advertising. Users can manage and block the use of cookies through their browser. Disabling or blocking certain cookies may limit the functionality of this site.

Do Not Track

This site currently does not respond to Do Not Track signals.


Pearson uses appropriate physical, administrative and technical security measures to protect personal information from unauthorized access, use and disclosure.


This site is not directed to children under the age of 13.


Pearson may send or direct marketing communications to users, provided that

  • Pearson will not use personal information collected or processed as a K-12 school service provider for the purpose of directed or targeted advertising.
  • Such marketing is consistent with applicable law and Pearson's legal obligations.
  • Pearson will not knowingly direct or send marketing communications to an individual who has expressed a preference not to receive marketing.
  • Where required by applicable law, express or implied consent to marketing exists and has not been withdrawn.

Pearson may provide personal information to a third party service provider on a restricted basis to provide marketing solely on behalf of Pearson or an affiliate or customer for whom Pearson is a service provider. Marketing preferences may be changed at any time.

Correcting/Updating Personal Information

If a user's personally identifiable information changes (such as your postal address or email address), we provide a way to correct or update that user's personal data provided to us. This can be done on the Account page. If a user no longer desires our service and desires to delete his or her account, please contact us at customer-service@informit.com and we will process the deletion of a user's account.


Users can always make an informed choice as to whether they should proceed with certain services offered by Cisco Press. If you choose to remove yourself from our mailing list(s) simply visit the following page and uncheck any communication you no longer want to receive: www.ciscopress.com/u.aspx.

Sale of Personal Information

Pearson does not rent or sell personal information in exchange for any payment of money.

While Pearson does not sell personal information, as defined in Nevada law, Nevada residents may email a request for no sale of their personal information to NevadaDesignatedRequest@pearson.com.

Supplemental Privacy Statement for California Residents

California residents should read our Supplemental privacy statement for California residents in conjunction with this Privacy Notice. The Supplemental privacy statement for California residents explains Pearson's commitment to comply with California law and applies to personal information of California residents collected in connection with this site and the Services.

Sharing and Disclosure

Pearson may disclose personal information, as follows:

  • As required by law.
  • With the consent of the individual (or their parent, if the individual is a minor)
  • In response to a subpoena, court order or legal process, to the extent permitted or required by law
  • To protect the security and safety of individuals, data, assets and systems, consistent with applicable law
  • In connection the sale, joint venture or other transfer of some or all of its company or assets, subject to the provisions of this Privacy Notice
  • To investigate or address actual or suspected fraud or other illegal activities
  • To exercise its legal rights, including enforcement of the Terms of Use for this site or another contract
  • To affiliated Pearson companies and other companies and organizations who perform work for Pearson and are obligated to protect the privacy of personal information consistent with this Privacy Notice
  • To a school, organization, company or government agency, where Pearson collects or processes the personal information in a school setting or on behalf of such organization, company or government agency.


This web site contains links to other sites. Please be aware that we are not responsible for the privacy practices of such other sites. We encourage our users to be aware when they leave our site and to read the privacy statements of each and every web site that collects Personal Information. This privacy statement applies solely to information collected by this web site.

Requests and Contact

Please contact us about this Privacy Notice or if you have any requests or questions relating to the privacy of your personal information.

Changes to this Privacy Notice

We may revise this Privacy Notice through an updated posting. We will identify the effective date of the revision in the posting. Often, updates are made to provide greater clarity or to comply with changes in regulatory requirements. If the updates involve material changes to the collection, protection, use or disclosure of Personal Information, Pearson will provide notice of the change through a conspicuous notice on this site or other appropriate way. Continued use of the site after the effective date of a posted revision evidences acceptance. Please contact us if you have questions or concerns about the Privacy Notice or any objection to any revisions.

Last Update: November 17, 2020