Hacking wireless

How hackers could use Wi-Fi to track you inside your home

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“The worrisome thing here is that the attacker has minimal cost, can stay silent without emitting any signal, and still be able to get information about you,” Zheng said.

Connected devices typically do not communicate with the internet directly, but do so by regularly transmitting signals to an access point, a hardware device such as a router. When a person walks nearby either device in this conversation, it changes the signal subtly, such that the perturbation can be detected by a nearby receiver “sniffing” the signal. That’s enough information for an observer to know if a person (or large animal, the researchers add) is in the room, with very high accuracy.

Because most building materials do not block the propagation of Wi-Fi signals, the receiver does not even need to be in the same room or building as the access point or connected devices to pick up these changes. These Wi-Fi sniffers are available off the shelf and inexpensive, typically less than $20. They’re also small and unobtrusive, easy to hide near target locations, and passive—sending no signal that could be detected by the target. 

The researchers also suggested different methods to block this surveillance technique. One protection would be to insulate buildings against Wi-Fi leakage; however, this would also prevent desirable signals, such as from cellular towers, from entering. Instead, they propose a simple technical method where access points emit a “cover signal” that mixes with signals from connected devices, producing false data that would confuse anyone sniffing for Wi-Fi signatures of motion. 

“What the hacker will see is that there’s always people around, so essentially you are creating noise, and they can’t tell whether there is an actual person there or not,” Zheng said. “You can think about it as a privacy button on your access point; you click it on and sacrifice a little bit of the bandwidth, but it protects your privacy.”

Zheng hopes that router manufacturers will consider introducing this privacy feature in future models; some of those firms have announced new features that use a similar method for motion detection, marketed as a home security benefit. The UChicago research has already received attention from Technology ReviewBusiness Insider and other tech publications, raising awareness of this new vulnerability. 

The study also reflects a growing research area in the Department of Computer Science, examining issues around increasingly prevalent connected “Internet of Things” devices. The IoT Security and Privacy Group, which includes Zhao and Zheng and additional faculty members including Nick FeamsterBlase Ur, and Marshini Chetty, will investigate both the benefits and potential vulnerabilities of these technologies, and a new IoT Lab in the Center for Data and Computing provides devices for researchers and students to hack and study for research.

The paper also includes co-authors Zhujun Xiao, Max Liu, and Yuxin Chen of UChicago CS, as well as Yanzi Zhu and Zhijing Li of UCSB.

Citation: “Et Tu Alexa? When Commodity WiFi Devices Turn into Adversarial Motion Sensors,” Zhu et al., accepted for the Network and Distributed Systems Security (NDSS) symposium in February 2020.

—Article originally appeared on the Department of Computer Science website

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