Posted by Vi Hughes on May 15, 2019

Wireless Communication and Privacy (or not)

This Tuesday we heard from Dr. Ioanis Nikolaidis on the topic of ‘’. Dr. Nikolaidis is a Full Professor and Assistant Department Chair (Research) in the Department of Computing Science and an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Physical Therapy at the U. of A. His research interest lies in the area of building inexpensive wireless communication systems to be used in conjunction with small complicated equipment such as medical devices.
 
Dr. Nikoaidis said that wireless communication allows us to communicate more easily, but it can also affect our privacy. He said that even though large parts of the radio spectrum have been licensed to various businesses, this does not mean that they are securely linked to just that provider. All of these frequencies are relatively easy for others to intercept, especially with todays equipment. Signals like those from an exercise watch can easily be picked up. If money is no objective and satellites are used, they can focus it at any desired location and pick up many different signals. These signals can then be combined with other types of information. For example, they can be combined with a photo also taken by satellite of the same area and each signal can then be associated with a particular location, buildings, vehicles, people etc. to create a much more informative picture. On a budget, one can now buy from Amazon a receiver that will pick up signals and identify them, even those that have been encrypted. In some countries possessing these types of devices is illegal.
There is also a device that will track he signals sent out by all airplanes and these are commonly used by some people to follow the movements of people they are interested in.
Our devices are very chatty. A single mobile phone sends and receives WiFi, Cellular and Bluetooth signals. They are constantly trying to connect to nearby devices and networks by sending out signals.  In doing this they also reveal your identity to some extent.  If you think you are not being tracked, think again. We do now have identity randomization technology that will transmit a false identity, but this technology can be easily defeated by some tranceivers that have protocols to recognize and break through this type of technology. Once your device is connected to a local network, they no longer need to triangulate your location. Most merchants can now track your movements up and down their aisles, recording where and for how long you stop. Some even combine it with video to get a much more complete picture of your visit to their business.
 
All devices have implicit identifiers. That means that they can be identified as to manufacturer and type by the type of transmission they use, the length of the transmission and the timing of those signals. Due to the restraints on military budgets, they nearly all use commercially available devices, which means they too can be identified to some extent. When combined with a satellite, the individual transmissions can be tracked from their point of origin, through the repeaters and on to the final destination of the signal. Thus the signal can be seen and heard, even if not decoded.
 
We would like to thank Dr Nikolaidis for his very interesting and enlightening talk. It certainly gives all of us who use these devices daily some food for thought.
 
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