University of Washington students can hack smart devices, track body movement

Computer science students at the University of Washington have found a way to remotely hack into people’s personal devices, such as cell phones and smart TV’s, to track individual movement, raising serious security questions, the university announced Wednesday.

The hacking method uses CovertBand, a software program the student team created, which essentially turns smart devices into sonar systems. Once hacked into a device, CovertBand plays repeating pulses that are able to track a person’s movement and location, similar to how a submarine sonar device works.

“To our knowledge, this is the first time anyone has demonstrated that it is possible to convert smart commodity devices — like smartphones and smart TVs — into active sonar systems using music,” said senior author Shyam Gollakota, a UW associate professor of computer science and engineering. “And the physical information CovertBand can gather — even through walls — is sufficiently detailed for an attacker to know what the user is doing, as well as other people nearby.”

According to the UW report, CovertBand can also decipher what type of movement a person is making, including “pumping arms, jumping and supine pelvic tilts.”

In March, Wikileaks released documents that allege the CIA currently has methods of hacking into smart devices. The UW students’ report argues that the ability to do so is not just in the realm of high-level government intelligence operatives.

“Other surveillance approaches require specialized hardware, from the ‘classic’ hidden camera to an ultrasound-like device that must be placed on the wall of a neighboring room,” said co-lead author Alex Takakuwa, a UW doctoral student in computer science and engineering. “CovertBand shows for the first time that through-barrier surveillance is possible using no hardware beyond what smart devices already have.”


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