Securing Your Smart Home Network


The Internet of Things (IoT) has led to the innovation of a variety solutions, covering both consumer and industrial applications. Smart home is one of the most prominent application of IoT, and many companies have invested heavily in this field. However, a major drawback with smart home and other IoT applications is network security. Since all devices are connected to each other, a single faulty device can affect the integrity of the entire network. For smart-home owners, the security requirements on networks are demanding. A hacked smart home allows unauthorized access to premises, or even the failure of critical systems such as fire protection systems.

Network Communications Security

In a Local Area Network (LAN), a third party might snoop transmitted information via the network. Although communication in a LAN is passive, a malicious listener can snoop critical data that is being communicated through the network. Additionally, malicious users can deceive the network using Address Resolution Protocol (ARP) and other means to obtain data without being detected.

  • Communicating with a unique language
    In this approach, a language known only to the internal network is used for communication. Even if a message from the network is disclosed publicly, the message cannot be deciphered.

Introduction to the Smart Home System

The image below shows a typical structure of a smart home system.

  • SmartHost: SmartHost, which forwards the Ethernet data to Device via the Zigbee data
  • Device: Device node, including light, curtain, and access control sensors, which Zigbee connects to SmartHost
  • Client: Mobile application. The application may be for Android or iOS clients. It receives the command of the user. When the Client and SmartHost are on the same LAN, the Client will interact with SmartHost through Wi-Fi. If the Client and SmartHost are not on the same LAN, the Server will forward the communication.

Attack and Defense

Typically, a home network is secured with passwords to limit unauthorized access. However, the method in which the passwords are stored and communicated plays a vital role in determining the robustness of the network security.

Method 1: No Encryption

If the communication between the Client and SmartHost is in plain text, security is at risk. If a hacker accesses the home LAN, the hacker can snoop network packets and easily manipulate the devices in the house.

Communication Process

  • Client →SmartHost: Login: account John, password abc
  • SmartHost →Client: OK
  • Client →SmartHost: Open the door
  • SmartHost →Client: Done

Attack Method

If the hacker snoops the communication, the hacker can simulate the Client to log on to the system.

  1. SmartHost →Hacker: OK
  2. Hacker →SmartHost: Open the door
  3. SmartHost →Hacker: Done


Because the communication is in plain text, it is easy the communication protocol between the Client and SmartHost to be analyzed. After stealing the account number and password of the user, the hacker can take full control of the household system.

Method 2: Using Static Key

The above problem lies in the data transmission using plain text, which can be analyzed easily. Instead, we can use a specific key to encrypt the data for extra security.

  1. SmartHost →Client: (OK)
  2. Client →SmartHost: (Open the door)
  3. SmartHost →Client: (Done)
  1. Hacker →SmartHost: (Open the door)


The hacker does not know the specific contents of the communication between the Client and the SmartHost. However, the hacker could simulate the “voice” of the Client to communicate with the SmartHost, assuming full control of the Device.

Method 3: Adding a Time Stamp

We can make a minor improvement to deal with the above attack. In general, the hacker will not execute the command immediately after he snoops it. Instead, he will execute the command when the host is not physically present at home. Therefore, we can add a field in the ciphertext called Timestamp.

Communication Process

  1. Client →SmartHost: (201509261543, Login: account John, password abc123)
  2. When the SmartHost receives the command, it compares the current system time with the timestamp. If the system time is 2015–09–26 15:44, the Client passes the verification because the time difference is within five minutes.
  3. SmartHost →Client: (201509261544, OK)
  4. When the Client receives the command, it compares the current system time with the timestamp. If the system time is 2015–09–26 15:43, the SmartHost passes the verification because the time difference is within five minutes.
  5. Client →SmartHost: (201509261548, Open the door)
  6. When the SmartHost receives the command, it repeats the verification process by comparing the timestamps.
  7. SmartHost →Client: (201509261549, OK)
  8. When the Client receives the command, it repeats the verification process by comparing the timestamps.

Attack Process

The hacker snooped the whole process but was not aware of the contents, particularly the timestamps. When the host leaves the house, the Hacker would launch an attack at 21:09.

  1. When the SmartHost receives the command, the current system time is 2015–09–26 21:09. Because the time difference exceeds five minutes, the request is discarded.
    The attack fails.


Because the hacker cannot read the contents without the static key, he cannot extract the timestamp information. Therefore, the hacker cannot penetrate the defense.

Method 4: Adding a Serial Number

The above solution can defend against commonly disguised attacks launched after five minutes but cannot deal attacks launched within five minutes. To cope with this, we can add a serial field (that is, a serial number) in the command to prevent the repeated command in a short time.


Similar to the timestamp, the hacker cannot modify the timestamp and serial fields because he cannot read the contents. When a copied packet is re-sent, it is bound to fail.

Disclosure of Static Key

Although the methods above seem perfect, they depend on three premises:

  • It is too costly for a brute-force attack.
  • The third party cannot obtain the encryption algorithm and the key of the communication.

Solution 1: Limiting Access to the Encryption Key

The common development engineer is not allowed to touch the encryption algorithm and encryption key. Only the core developer of the company can carry out the design of the encryption algorithm. Other common development engineers can only access the binary static library or dynamic library.

const char *encrypt_key = "adi3dfa;9era";
strings libEncrypt.a
//! The name should not expose the encryption key. It should be in a common phrase
char encrypt_key[128] = {0};
//! The name should not expose the encryption key. It should be in a common phrase
void GenerateEncryptKey()
//! The key in the encrypt_key is generated through a certain algorithm here

Solution 2: Automatically Generating an Encryption Key

This method is based on the principle of “an encryption algorithm that cannot stop the encryption algorithm designer himself is not a good algorithm.” In this method, the static key encryption is used only once. Each product will receive a unique key upon delivery, which has a corresponding data table on the server.

SmartHost Logging on to the Server

After the user purchases the SmartHost and starts it for the first time, the SmartHost will log on to the Server.

  1. Server →SmartHost: [Allow]
    The Server extracts the uid from the packet and searches for the unique key corresponding to the uid in the database and then encrypts the response data with the unique key.
  2. The SmartHost encrypts the subsequent packets with the uniquekey.
    In this way, only the super administer of the database can access the SmartHost unique_key corresponding to the uid.

Client and SmartHost

The user needs to bind the SmartHost with the Client. However, the Client does not know the uid or unique key of the SmartHost. How can the Client communicate with the SmartHost?

To search for SmartHost

  1. The Client uses User Datagram Protocol (UDP) to broadcast the packet: [timestamp=201509291255, serial=24234, tell me your IP address]
  2. When the SmartHost receives the packet, it will use the unique key to decode and verify the timestamp field. If the result is normal, which indicates that the decryption is successful, the packet is sent. Then, it will reply with the UDP packet: [timestamp=201509291255, serial=3234, ip_address=192.168.x.x]
  3. When the Client receives the UDP packet, it will use the unique key to decode and obtain the IP address of the SmartHost.

Binding the SmartHost

The unique key encryption is applied to subsequent interactions with the SmartHost.

Client and Server

When the md5sum of the password is used as the unique key for communication, timestamp and serial verification will be conducted by default.

Registering an Account

Client →Server: (Regist: account=Lucy, password=98789) Server-->Client: (Done)


  1. Client →Server: (Login: account=Lucy)[timestamp=201509292100] informs the Server of its account, and then the server queries the table according to the account number to obtain the unique key and then uses it to decode the timestamp and carry out timestamp verification. If it passes the verification, the login is successful. Otherwise, the login fails.
  2. Server →Client: [timestamp=201509292100, OK]

Attack Simulation

For hackers who do not understand the communication protocol, the packet replay attacks are useless.
The hacker in this example is assumed to be very familiar with the protocol. Suppose the hacker:

  • Cannot access the server and secret data.
  • Cannot access the SmartHost of the user.
  1. If he can intercept the registration process of the Client, he can decode it. If the encryption of the registration packet is with static key, the hacker then can obtain the user’s password and calculate the unique key of the md5sum. He can use this to simulate the true Client to manipulate the SmartHost. The key point for this method is to capture the registration packet. Since one user can use this packet only once, capturing occurs only when the communication happens in the LAN that the hacker has entered. If the user has registered its account when the hacker decides to attack the SmartHost, the attack fails.
  2. The hacker can allure users to use a Trojan app to steal the files stored by in the mobile system of the Client. Then, he can obtain the account number and password of the Client, as well as the unique key of the SmartHost.


Security is a key element in smart home and should never be taken lightly. From the above examples, the most feasible attack method is using a Trojan app. By using this method, the hacker bypasses all security measures because the unique key of the SmartHost, as well as the user’s account number and password are available on the mobile phone. Therefore, users must also take extra precautions when installing apps from unreliable sources to prevent a Trojan attack.

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