February 22, 2017

Delay attacks - the forgotten attack?

The unlock scenario

Together with colleges at ASSA ABLOY, I am working with a secure channel protocol called Salt Channel. It is open source and can be found on Github. One potential application is to control a lock (lock / unlock commands) from a credential in the proximity of the lock (RFID card, mobile phone, fob).

Typical secure channel implementations, like TLS, provide confidentiality and mutual authentication. Data integrity is also provided. They generality protect against attacks such as: replay attacks, various types of man-in-the-middle attacks and more. However, I know of no secure channel protocol that protects against delay attacks.

A delay attack is an attack where the attacker simply delays a packet in the communication. This is definitely in the scope of what an attacker is allowed to do in just about any threat model. Also, in practice, it can be easy to perform. Delaying a packet may not seem like a threat at first. Surely, it did not appear to us while developing Salt Channel v1, that a packet delay could be a security issue. Well, it can!

The figure about shows the scenario. Alice wants to unlock Lock with her phone through a radio communication channel (Bluetooth, Bluetooth Low Energy, NFC) to Lock. Mallory intercepts the communication and function as a man-in-the-middle. Alice establishes a secure channel with Lock. This is successful since Mallory simply forwards all messages between Alice and Lock. Then Alice sends the unlock message to Lock. Mallory recognizes this packet by packets size, packet ordering and so on (based on studying previous communication sessions). Mallory cannot read the contents of the package, nor modify it, however she delays it. Alice detects that she cannot open the door. Something seems to not work. She walks away. Once Alice is gone, Mallory, who is hiding near the door, sends the unlock packet. The Lock unlocks and Mallory can get in through the door without being detected.


I have not found literature focused on this issue. Perhaps I am just googling wrong, I have not studied this much. Any help is appreciated. I don't even know a name for this, so I invented "delay attack" since I could not find a term for it. Surely, this must be treated in public literature already.

Note, that this is not a replay attack. The packet is not replayed and a delay attack requires completely different counter-measures.

Note, this is not a timing attack. Even though timing is involved, timing attacks is a completely different thing and should therefore not be used for this type of attacks.

Existing delay attacks

There seem to exist practical delay attacks against car key systems.


Many application layer implementations likely do not consider packet delay attacks and their implications. It can be argued that there should be protection against delay attacks in the secure channel layer.

When Alice sends the unlock command she implicitly wants the door to open now. Not in 60 seconds. We can see this as an integrity protection of her intent to unlock now. Of course, this could be handled by the application layer. But why not put it in the secure channel layer? It sure seems like a general problem to deal with in a general way.

Perhaps another blog post will deal with countermeasures of delay attacks. We need some.


2020-02-24. These links are of interest. They use the term "delay attack".