MIT Researchers Develop Transmitter to Prevent Hackers From Attacking IoT Devices

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June 11, 2018

By Lee Bell

MIT researchers have developed a transmitter that could help prevent hackers from attacking Internet of Things (IoT) devices.

Such devices are vulnerable to attacks that are known to locate, intercept, and overwrite the data, and jam signals.

One method that has been looked into to protect the data on these devices is “frequency hopping”, a technique which sends each data packet, containing thousands of individual bits, on a random, unique radio frequency (RF) channel, so hackers can’t pin down any given packet.

However, this technique slows network traffic to such an extent that hackers can still pull off an attack.

MIT researchers, therefore, have developed a new transmitter device that works by frequency hopping each individual 1 or 0 bit of a data packet, every microsecond, which they say is fast enough to thwart even the smartest hackers.

The transmitter takes advantage of frequency-agile devices called bulk acoustic wave (BAW) resonators and rapidly switches between a wide range of RF channels, sending information for a data bit with each hop. The researchers also incorporated a channel generator that, each microsecond, selects the random channel to send each bit.

On top of that, the researchers developed a wireless protocol, different from the protocol used today, to support the ultrafast frequency hopping.

“With the current existing [transmitter] architecture, you wouldn’t be able to hop data bits at that speed with low power,” explained the first author of a paper describing the transmitter, Rabia Tugce Yazicigil, who is also a postdoc in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at MIT.

“By developing this protocol and radio frequency architecture together, we offer physical-layer security for connectivity of everything. Initially, this could mean securing smart meters that read home utilities, control heating, or monitor the grid.”

The paper is being presented at the IEEE Radio Frequency Integrated Circuits Symposium.

Yazicigil added that the transmitter could help secure medical devices, such as insulin pumps and pacemakers, that could be attacked if a hacker wants to cause harm, or to protect them from collateral damage from attacks on other IoT devices.

“When people start corrupting the messages [of these devices] it starts affecting people’s lives,” he said.

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