Just about all modern gadgets, including tablets, laptops, and speakers, feature Bluetooth capabilities. Bluetooth is a common wireless communication protocol used to connect two devices together over short distances, such as wireless earbuds with an Android smartphone. The technology is fast and convenient, and the modern version of it is quite reliable, which is why so many devices use it to communicate with each other. The frequency with which Bluetooth is used means most Android smartphone owners keep it turned on at all times.
Leaving Bluetooth enabled on your smartphone may present a security risk, however, potentially opening up your device to nefarious actors who might install malware that turns it into a surveillance device. Concerns over security flaws in Bluetooth are nothing new, but they do return to the spotlight on occasion, such as when it was revealed that Vice President Kamala Harris allegedly uses wired earbuds over concerns about Bluetooth security risks (via Politico). Though it would be extreme to ditch your wireless devices, there are good reasons you should turn off Bluetooth when it’s not in use.
Leaving Bluetooth on 24/7 is a security risk
Because Bluetooth’s use is so ubiquitous, almost every device you come across is compatible with it, including speakers, computer peripherals, and similar products. Once you pair your Android smartphone with one of these gadgets, it will automatically reconnect to it the next time you’re nearby — assuming you’ve left Bluetooth turned on, of course. This is particularly convenient when it comes to quickly using a pair of wireless headphones or connecting to your car’s infotainment system.
However, the December 2021 revelation about Vice President Harris’ caution regarding the technology renewed interest in why it may be risky. One anonymous security researcher who goes by “SwiftOnSecurity” on Twitter said in a tweet that Bluetooth “exposes … your device for attack,” backing up the VP’s decision to avoid using wireless earbuds. So what is it about Bluetooth that makes it so vulnerable?
A major factor lies in its nature. Bluetooth technology operates on having devices discover each other when within close range of each other. The Bluetooth-enabled device sends a signal that can be detected by other devices that are in its range. This discoverability leaves them vulnerable to a malicious attack if a hacker is in the area, whether by managing to connect to the device without the user’s permission or by sending a barrage of connection requests that leaves the phone temporarily unusable (via GovInfo).
Privacy is another issue that users should think about when using Bluetooth. According to The New York Times, large retailers such as Walmart and Target may use Bluetooth technology to track shoppers while they are in stores to enhance the customer experience. This data can be sold to third-party marketing companies that may use your information without your knowledge.
How can you protect yourself?
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The U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) advises users to turn off Bluetooth when it’s not needed, assuming you’re in public areas like airports, shopping centers, restaurants, or on public transportation. Alternatively, you can make your device’s Bluetooth connection undiscoverable by default and only switch it on when you’re ready to pair it with another device. When it is in this mode, only trusted devices that were previously paired will be able to connect.
You should dismiss any Bluetooth connection requests that appear unexpectedly on your devices, and also disable Bluetooth at that time under the assumption someone is attempting to connect to your smartphone. Likewise, you should never accept files from unknown or suspicious devices because you never know what you may be getting. In addition, you should make sure that your Android device has the most up-to-date software installed so that you get all of the latest security patches.