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On the Security of AES in HomeMatic

HomeMatic is a line of home automation devices that are popular in Germany and use a proprietary radio protocol (BidCoS, Bidirectional Communication Standard) on a frequency of 868MHz. Some devices allow optional use of “AES signing” for message authentication. When enabled, the execution of a command is delayed until a challenge-response process between the initiator and receiver of the command is completed. All AES capable HomeMatic devices ship with a default key, which can optionally be set to a custom value. The signing requirement is disabled by default for most devices, except for the KeyMatic/WinMatic line which includes devices for door lock and window automation which always require AES for all commands.

Before 2014 the common wisdom1 was to leave the AES key at the default value: Setting a custom key and forgetting it renders the device useless and requires it to be sent back to the manufacturer to reset it – for a fee.

Sathya Laufer and Christian Mallas demonstrated that this is trivially dangerous at the 30th Chaos Communication Congress: Within the HomeMatic universe there are LAN gateways that accept commands over Ethernet/IP and forward them through BidCoS to the target device. In this setup, all the BidCoS AES operations are executed by the LAN gateway. So if the target device is using the default key, an attacker can simply use a LAN gateway (which also knows the default AES key) to send arbitrary commands to that device, without bothering with any of the cryptographic details.

Later, the default AES key became known, and a reverse engineering of the authentication protocol is available (see next section), so an attacker can also use custom hardware to send commands to all devices still configured with the default key.

Michael Gernoth did a superb job of reverse engineering the authentication protocol2, but his description is mainly based on the flow to authenticate a known message. I’ll try to re-frame that here in the way that the authentication token is generated, and also generically for arbitrary message sizes. Where applicable I’ll use the same abbreviations that Michael uses (∥ is concatenation, ⊕ is XOR):

m Original message to be authenticated. Note: m = D0 ∥ D1, if the length is considered not to be part of the packet.
c Challenge message
r Response message
a ACK message
Data items
Name Description Length/bytes Packet
D0 Metadata (counter, flags, type, sender, receiver) 10 m
D1 Parameters varies m
C Challenge 6 c
P AES response 16 r
A ACK authentication 4 a
T Timestamp or counter 6

Under these definitions the calculation of the authentication messages happens as follows:

  • K’ := K ⊕ (C ∥ 00…)
  • Pd’ := AES(K’, T ∥ D0)
  • P := AES(K’, Pd’ ⊕ (D100…) )

Or, in easier terms, and likely representing the original idea, for arbitrary packet lengths:

AESCBC(IV= 00…, Key= K ⊕ (C ∥ 00…), Payload= T ∥ m)

(with the last block of the CBC calculation being output as P and the first 4 bytes of the first block as A)

While this looks like a standard (ab)use of AES-CBC as an authentication code, best as I can tell, the verification really has to happen in the very strange backwards way that Michael describes, for the simple reason that T is not transmitted and thus not available to the verifier to replicate the same calculation as the initiator.

How secure is the HomeMatic system if a custom AES key is used?

A customary simple measure for security is the number of bits an attacker must guess correctly to violate whatever security properties the system claims to have. This is related to the number of operations to execute in the attack3. Example: For an authentication mechanism with a security of 128 bits, the attacker needs to either correctly guess 128 bits (either key or authentication code) to break the system, or perform 2127 operations (random authentication attempts) to score a successful attack with a probability of ~50%.4

Under this definition a single block of AES with fully random key has a security of 128 bits. We would hope to find the same security in the HomeMatic use of AES.

CBC-MAC is generally not a recommended way to construct a message authentication code and very easy to implement wrong, for examples and a longer discussion of this aspect see this article on CBC-MAC by Matthew Green. That being said, XORing the challenge into the key prevents most of the more obvious attacks. They are enabled again, when a challenge is re-used though.

Challenge re-use

The challenge is a 6‑byte value generated by the verifier that must be random. Random number generation (RNG) with computers is hard, and RNGs in many (embedded) devices have had spectacular failures with security implications in the past: 1 2 3 4.

Now, I can’t make any assertions as to the quality of HomeMatic’s RNG, so let’s assume that it is stellar and always outputs full 48 bits of randomness. The birthday paradox then tells us that after around 224 ≈ 16.7 million tries there’s a better than even (50%) chance that a number repeats. A repeated challenge directly gives the attacker the possibility to replay a previous command.

For this attack to work with probability 50% the attacker must capture on the order of 16.7 million identical messages, and then try to get the same command executed 16.7 million times, representing a security factor of around 26 bits. Probably nothing to worry about in a radio protocol that will do at most ~5 authentications per second (the second phase alone will take 6 weeks), but a far cry from 128 bits.

The specific usage of CBC-MAC is also susceptible to an attack where the attacker can craft a valid authentication token for a message that consists of a message sniffed from the radio channel appended with attacker controlled data, see Matthew’s article linked above. However, I couldn’t think of a way to make this stick: The attacker still needs to be able to either coax the system into generating an authentication token for a different attacker chosen message, or be very limited in the message manipulations possible.

Blind guessing

Remember that T is never transmitted but apparently inferred from the protocol? That means, from an attacker’s point of view, that these bits are free. Instead of guessing 128 bits of key or authentication code, the attacker only need to guess 128–6*8=80 bits. Even if the verifier checks T to be monotonously increasing that only adds one additional bit of complexity. It works like this:

  1. Attacker sends arbitrary message m = D0 ∥ D1
  2. Verifier sends challenge C
  3. Attacker sends random answer P
  4. Verifier calculates
    • Pd’ := AES-1(K’,P) ⊕ (D100…), and
    • Pd’d := AES-1(K’, Pd’).

    Verifier then checks whether the last ten bytes of Pd’d match D0 (and maybe if the first 6 bytes are higher than the last T received).

  5. If in the previous step a match is found, the verifier executes the command and outputs A.

Note that in the protocol D1 is never checked, but used to calculate something that is checked against D0. Now: An attacker that feeds random data into P will cause random data to appear in Pd’d. There’s a chance of 1 in 280 that this random data matches D0 (and possibly: another 1 in 2 that the first 6 bytes are numerically larger than the last T).

Again: 80 is much lower than 128, so cryptographically speaking the mechanism is broken. Practically though, sending 280 requests (giving a success probability of 63% to the attacker) will take 7.6 Pa5, so that’s probably nothing to worry about.


Internally the AES key is a binary value of 128 bits, but that’s not how it’s presented to the user in the front-end. Setting the HomeMatic security key requests an arbitrary text string from the user, which is then hashed with MD5 and the resulting hash is used as the AES key.

A careless user might not worry too much about this key, and the on-screen prompt only reminds them to use at least 5 characters. Even under the best of circumstances, one typeable character has only about 6 bits of entropy. The minimum security recommended by the user interface therefore is equivalent to 5*6 = 30 bits. Also: An attacker can execute an offline dictionary attack on the key after intercepting one or a few radio messages. Execution rates for these kinds of attacks typically lie in the millions or billions of operations per second even on regular PC hardware (CPU and GPU), so any 5 character security key will be cracked in seconds.

Luckily this isn’t a flaw by design: The user needs to make sure to chose a fully random key with at least 128 bits of entropy, for example in the form of 32 random hexadecimal characters.


The problems are, in order from most to least exploitable:

  1. Low entropy in the security key. Security break in seconds. Easily averted by choosing a strong key.
  2. Challenge re-use. Break may be possible within a few decades to years.
  3. Blind guessing. Break possible within a few petayears.

From a theoretical point of view, the security of the BidCoS protocol with a custom AES key is much worse than it should be. From a practical point of view it’s entirely acceptable, if the user chooses a long fully random key, and the attacker isn’t present when the key is set6.

Note: These considerations only apply to the theoretical protocol and not any particular implementation. It’s possibly, even likely, that there are exploitable bugs in some device firmware and/or that the RNG is not as good as expected. Bugs in this area generally reduce the security to the “break within minutes to seconds” category.

  1. See for example this archived article from October 2012, courtesy of the internet archive. The article was updated to say the polar opposite in January 2014. 

  2. XORing the challenge into the key is somewhat unusual, I’m not sure I would’ve found that 

  3. Theoretical computer science generally doesn’t care about constant factors. 

  4. These two notions are not identical, but close enough that, for the purposes of approximately judging system security, I’ll treat them as interchangeable for this article. 

  5. 7.6 petayears, 7 600 000 000 000 000 years 

  6. Obviously the key is transmitted over the air, encrypted with a key that the attacker already knows by induction. 

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