Platform: GNU/Linux
       Language: C
       License: GPLv2
       Dependencies: BlueZ
       Development Progress: (github)
       Latest Stable Release: 2.1 (Download)

Initial Idea

       During the course of my Bluetooth security research, I found that the BlueZ utility bccmd could be used to poll a Bluetooth adapter based on the Cambridge Silicon Radio (CSR) chipset for a random number. Bluetooth devices use random numbers as part of the pairing process, to generate initialization keys based on the user's PIN and the MAC addresses of the devices pairing. With bccmd you can direct a specific Bluetooth adapter to generate a random number on the fly, which is reported back to the software.

Now, I wasn't going to lie to myself. I was positive pretty much from the start that the pseudorandom number generator (PRNG) in a Bluetooth adapter is probably not very good, and would be unlikely to outperform a decent PRNG algorithm on the computer. But I couldn't help but be curious about just how well the PRNG in one of these devices could perform. Even if it didn't outperform the operating system's built-in PRNG, it had a certain advantage of being a dedicated piece of hardware. In theory, the generation of random numbers in an external device, even if it is only a software PRNG running on it, is slightly more secure than using the default OS's PRNG, if for no other reason than the fact that it is not part of the OS itself. It should be less susceptible to the environmental factors that can hinder the effectiveness of the OS's generator. For example, Linux's PRNG uses things like keyboard and mouse activity to generate entropy, but what if the machine is headless? By pushing random number generation to another device, even if the objective quality of the numbers is no better, it may still be less prone to attack.

Also, the PRNG in some software implementations and operating systems is not very good in the first place. For example, take a look at this interesting discovery about the PHP rand() function on Windows. To be fair, this was a combination of a few problems, but it does show how PRNGs that are actively being used in the field can end up being defective. In these cases, the Bluetooth PRNG could conceivably outperform what is already in place.

But really, the biggest draw here was the fact that devices with the CSR chipset can be had for as little as $3 shipped from retailers like DealExtreme. Having a dedicated PRNG hardware device for $3, even one that isn't terribly good, is just too cool not to look into.

Supported Hardware

Devices        In theory, this should work with any Bluetooth USB adapter based on the CSR chipset, but in my testing I found that some adapters simply wouldn't return any data when queried. I was never able to find out the exact reason for this, so there is a bit of luck involved with finding hardware that will work consistently with these methods. In my own testing, I used 2 AIRcable XR's, and SKUs 11825, 16229, and 12696 from DealExtreme.

If you are going to buy hardware to experiment with, I would probably suggest SKU 16229; it is the cheapest option I have found but out of all the devices I tested had the most unreliable performance. With DX's BULKRATE program, you can get 10 of these shipped for under $30, which is good, because you are going to want multiples in case some of them don't want to play nice. If you are into Bluetooth research in general and are going to do other things with it, it is worth it to get a second-hand Host XR on eBay. The Host XR was easily the most reliable out of all the devices I used.

Besides the devices shown here, I have done some (minimal) testing with the internal Bluetooth devices in Dell laptops, and found those to work fairly well. If anyone tries to duplicate these results on their own, I would be interested in hearing about what devices you used and how reliable they were.

Proof of Concept

       As a quick proof of concept, I wrote up a very simple little Bash script to call bccmd a few times and run the output through awk and sed to isolate the random number. Usually, the output of bccmd looks something like this:
bash:~# bccmd rand
Random number: 0x69e (1694)
Using the following Bash script (I am not very good with sed, please don't laugh at me), we can demonstrate generating a string of random data from the adapter:
# Test script to generate random numbers from CSR dongle


for (( c=1; c<=10; c++ ))
	echo -n `$CMD rand | awk '{print $4}' | sed 's/.\(.*\)/\1/' | \
       		sed 's/\(.*\)./\1/'`
echo ""
echo "Done"
The output of this script, which will (hopefully...) look different on your machine, will be something like this:
bash:~# ./btrng.sh
So now that the method is sound, it is only a matter of generating enough potentially random numbers to analyze, right? Well, let's see, how about we modify that script a bit, and instead of outputting to the terminal we redirect the command to a file, "rand.txt". Then let's say as a test we change the number of times to run the command to 1000. Let's take a look at the output from the new code:
bash:~# time ./btrng.sh
Loop 1000 of 1000

real    0m29.994s
user    0m3.592s
sys     0m6.219s
bash:~# wc -m ./rand.txt
Oh. So it took just shy of 30 seconds to generate about 4,800 random digits. Now, considering any real analysis of random numbers takes millions of digits to even approach statistical accuracy, we have a little bit of a problem on our hands. At this rate, it would take nearly two hours to create just 1 million digits, which still isn't enough to do any serious testing with.

Clearly I had an issue. I proved that random numbers could be pulled en masse from a bog-standard Bluetooth adapter, but the rate at which this Bash script was doing it was way too low for a statistical analysis. I needed to do it much much faster, and when you need speed you certainly don't want Bash. Rather reluctantly, as I am not a terribly good nor experienced programmer, I came to realize the only way to get the speed I needed was to open up the source for bccmd itself, and modify it.

The Joy of Open Source

       Getting the source for bccmd was easy enough, I just got it from the Slackware /source directory on my nearest mirror (which happens to be about 10 feet from where I am sitting). I used bccmd from the BlueZ 3.x branch, as that is what I do all of my testing and work with.

Opening up bccmd.c showed me all of the functions that bccmd is able to perform, and it wasn't much of a problem to strip the functions and capabilities I didn't need. As I test I simply had it loop the cmd_rand function 1000 times as in the Bash example:

bash:~# time ./bccmd_test
Random number: 0xd475 (54389)
Random number: 0xbb9d (48029)


Random number: 0x3189 (12681)
Random number: 0x7902 (30978)

real	0m16.007s
user	0m0.017s
sys	0m0.039s
Ah, now that was more like it. It took the modified bccmd almost half the time to run 1000 iterations as did the simple Bash proof of concept. I began work refining my little modification, until it rapidly turned into a complete rewrite, keeping only the one or two functions that provided the BlueZ transport and commands. bt_rng was born.


       I realized pretty early on that the biggest problem with using Bluetooth adapters as a source of random number was that the adapter takes it's sweet time responding no matter how fast the computer itself is. I am not sure if the delay is in BlueZ, or the processing time it takes the meager adapter's hardware to calculate a number (probably a bit of both), but I know that it is the absolute speed-limit. So if one adapter can only output data at a specific rate...the only way to get data faster would be to use more adapters.

To do this I needed to make bt_rng multithreading. Basically, the function that requests a random number from the adapter would break off from the main program and run on it's own in the background. The main program could then spawn another copy of the function, or thread, pointing at a different adapter. Assuming BlueZ could hold it together, I figured it would be possible to poll at least 2 adapters simultaneously, and possibly more. Though from my previous research I knew BlueZ seems to destabilize once you get more than 2 or 3 Bluetooth devices in the same machine.

This was a fine idea, but the only problem was I never wrote a multithreaded application before. As I mentioned earlier, I am not a terribly good programmer either, so I was worried that my inexperience and lack of skill would be enough to stop this concept dead in it's tracks. But luckily for me I found this excellent page which gave a very clear overview on how to do multithreaded applications in a standards-compliant way. After only a few tries, I had a basic multithreaded version of bt_rng up and running.

As I expected, past a 2 adapters things start to get a little shaky, and devices start to time out. bt_rng supports and can work with up to 4 threads on 4 separate devices, but I have found that 2 seems to give the best balance of performance and stability. Any more, and the auto-correction routine (which involves throttling down the thread) tends to slow down overall performance.

Let's take a look at how long it takes to do 1000 iterations with 2 devices:

bash:~# time ./bt_rng -t 2 -i 1000
bt_rng Proof of Concept
Running 1000 iterations on 2 threads. Mode: Integer
Initalizing device: hci0 on thread 0
Initalizing device: hci1 on thread 1
Thread 1 autocorrection - Retry: 1 Old: 29066, New: 29066
Thread 0 done.
Thread 1 autocorrection - Retry: 2 Old: 29066, New: 51308
Thread 1 done.
Main Done.

real	0m10.467s
user	0m0.009s
sys	0m0.021s
As you can see, performance is up a bit. Two devices during 500 iterations each completes in about 10.5 seconds, compared to 16 seconds for a single device. This is not completely unexpected, but still disappointing. The auto-correction adds a few seconds to overall runtime, which is unfortunately a necessary evil. Auto-correction only becomes more frequent as the number of devices increases, so runtime actually gets worse with too many devices going at once. This was certainly better than the old code, but was fundamentally flawed; if I couldn't run more than 2 devices on a machine without incurring performance penalties, there was only one other option.

Divide and Conquer

       If I was limited to 2 devices per machine, then the next step was to run 2 devices on multiple machines at the same time. I am sure a more experienced programmer would have built some parallel processing functions into the application itself, but my solution was a little more mundane. I would simply export the bt_rng program over NFS, and have multiple client machines execute it from there. As all of them will be writing to the same output file on the NFS export, they will be collectively working together to overcome the issues incurred running multiple devices on each machine.

In addition, as each client will have opened the file in append mode there will be an interleaving effect due to multiple processes writing to the same file simultaneously. In other words, node 1 might inject it's data into the output file chronologically after node 4, but before node 3. In theory, this should help to compensate for any bias in one particular adapter or node.

Running bt_rng on a cluster is the only way to generate large amounts of random data in a realistic time frame, but it is still by no means quick. The previous examples showed us that, roughly, a machine running 2 bt_rng threads would take 10 seconds to complete 1000 iterations, or 1 second to complete 100. Using this as a very rough metric of speed, we can calculate per-node runtime for a given number iterations.

For example, say we had 2 nodes in the cluster, each running 2 devices. Let's also say that each node was set to run 4 million iterations. Given a speed of 100 iterations per second, we can expect each node to be running for a minimum of just under 6 hours. This time can vary slightly depending on the number of autocorrections required, so between 6 and 6.5 hours would be a good estimate. But since we have 2 nodes running in parallel, the end result will be 8 million iterations in 6 to 6.5 hours.

Early Data

       Once I had a system setup were I could generate significant random digits from the devices I was able to start doing serious analysis on the data. Take a look at the Evaluating Entropy Research Page for information on the software and methods used in the following section. Go ahead, I'll wait.

The first runs show that bt_rng has a very good ratio for the digits 1 through 9, but occurrences of 0 are significantly lower than the others. This is sort of a flaw in bt_rng, though one that I can't immediately figure out a better solution for. Basically, some incompatible Bluetooth devices just put out 0 every time you request a random number, so bt_rng interprets this as a hardware problem and exits. So the only zeros that appear in the output are the leading zeros, hence the lower probability.

Int Chart

To get around this problem, by default bt_rng will only deal with digits between 1 and 8. This does cut down a bit on throughput, but gives much better results as can be seen in the above chart. The statistical probability of getting a 1 through 8 is almost perfectly equal, which is considerably better than I thought it would be.

Second Attempt

       Now that I had adjusted for the problem with 0, I did another large run to see what the final output would look like. I set the cluster up with 3 nodes running 2 adapters each, and let them run for over 20 hours. The resulting file was run through ENT:
bash:~# ent -c ./output.txt 
Value Char Occurrences Fraction
 48   0     10372348   0.500081
 49   1     10368975   0.499919

Total:      20741323   1.000000

Entropy = 1.000000 bits per byte.

Optimum compression would reduce the size
of this 20741323 byte file by 87 percent.

Chi square distribution for 20741323 samples is 2634148091.21, and randomly
would exceed this value less than 0.01 percent of the times.

Arithmetic mean value of data bytes is 48.4999 (127.5 = random).
Monte Carlo value for Pi is 4.000000000 (error 27.32 percent).
Serial correlation coefficient is 0.000393 (totally uncorrelated = 0.0).
This looks...exceptionally good. Bias is very low, and the serial correlation coefficient is excellent. I then set Spectra to run through and generate a 1920x1080 image of the data set, which also looked good, no noticeable pattern in the data. Click here to view.

Data Comparison

       Frankly, the output surprised me. This was an incredible improvement over the previous runs, though I wanted to see just how good these numbers were compared to known-good sources and comparable PRNGs. For the known good data I once again used files from Random.org, and for the PRNG I just wrote up a simple C program to generate 0's and 1's with a time-seeded rand().

The file from Random.org for this particular day contained 8,388,608 digits, so accordingly that is how many digits I pulled from bt_rng and rand(). Running them both through ENT with the "-c" option gave me the following data:

RNG Comparison

As you can see here, bt_rng shows almost zero bias, the probability of a 0 or 1 appearing are very close to 50/50, which theoretically is a good thing. I am surprised to see that Random.org is actually the most skewed, but as mentioned previously, part of the difficulty in evaluating random data is how...random it is. It could be that the data for another day would be even closer than this. Ideally I would need to run this comparison a few thousand times or so, but for the sake of simplicity, let's just take the win for now. I then ran the same data through Spectra to see if I could find any obvious patterns. Here is a small sample:

RNG Comparison 2

There isn't a whole lot going on here, but if you look closely you will notice that the bt_rng and rand() data have a slightly more dense look to them, with some clusters of black here and there. This is a bit more evident on the rand() sample. What this basically means is that the Random.org data is better spread out than the other two, which is to be expected. But bt_rng doesn't exhibit any glaringly obvious repeating pattern, which is very impressive considering how close the spread was in the last test. I have to admit, I almost expected Spectra to show that the entire file generated by bt_rng was alternating 0's and 1's.


       Well, I am not entirely sure how to grade this one. On one hand, bt_rng is able to generate some apparently high-quality random numbers through commodity Bluetooth adapters. On the other hand, it takes at least a half a dozen of those adapters and 2 or 3 computers running for ~12 hours to do it. But for argument's sake, I was also generating many more numbers than the average installation would require as I was testing millions of digits at a time. For a home server that is tasked with encryption, one or two adapters could very well be enough to generate enough random data to meet demand. I'm also not sure how to evaluate bt_rng's ability to resist attacks or flaws in the operating system's PRNG. My gut still tells me this would be somewhat less exploitable, but more testing would be necessary to say for sure.

At the end of the day, I learned a lot about parallel computing tasks, multi-threading applications, and repurposing proven GPL'd code for new programs. Plus there were a lot of graphs, so I think that deserves bonus points. In total I think enough went right, or at least sufficiently un-terrible to keep this one out of the "Fails" department.

bt_rng: The Home Game

       As a blind Starfleet Chief Engineer once said, "But you don't have to take my word for it." You can download stable(ish) versions of bt_rng from the Downloads section.

You will notice that there is a 1.x series and a 2.x series of bt_rng in the Downloads. bt_rng 2.x is the new series that takes into account advice and information I got after this project hit HackaDay, most notably from Simon Cooper of LavaRND fame. bt_rng 2.x uses a much more accurate and efficient algorithm, and drops the multiple output modes from 1.x. I will keep the older 1.x series up for the sake of completion, but for all practical purposes only 2.x should be used for any real work.

I would be exceptionally interested to hear from anyone who plays with this code on their own systems, or is bored enough to actually setup their own bt_rng cluster for evaluation.

For those of you who are feeling somewhat less masochistic, I have also put up the output file from the cluster's 20 hour run. That is 20,741,323 random bytes for you to enjoy. Test it for entropy, print it out and make wallpaper, whatever you want. Let me know if you find anything interesting. You can get it from the bt_rng Download directory.