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Researchers Turned A Smart Vacuum Cleaner Into A Laser Microphone

by : Hannah Smith on : 20 Nov 2020 16:29
ACM SIGMOBILE ONLINE

You’ve heard the warnings about smart speakers, but it turns out Alexa isn’t the only thing in your home that’s capable of spying on you.

A team of developers has managed to turn a smart vacuum cleaner into a microphone that can record nearby conversations. The process, which they’ve called LidarPhone, works by adapting the LiDAR system used by robot hoovers for navigation, and converting it into a laser microphone.

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This isn’t exactly new technology, in fact the technique was a popular tool for Cold War spies, who used to point lasers at the windows of people they were surveilling and decipher conversation through the vibrations on the glass.

Researchers from the University of Maryland and National University of Singapore applied the same idea to adapt the LiDAR system of a Xiaomi Roborock vacuum cleaner, and presented the concept for the first time at the ACM Conference on Embedded Networked Sensor Systems earlier this week.

The developers took control of the vacuum’s LiDAR navigation system to demonstrate how such smart devices could be susceptible to hackers.

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In order to create a working microphone, the team installed malware into the vacuum to stop the LiDAR system from rotating – which is how the vacuums usually navigate – and instead focus the laser on a specific nearby object from which they could pick up audio vibrations. The laser readings were then uploaded to a remote server and processed until they could be understood by a human observer, ZDNet reports.

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That’s a lot of steps for a potential cyberattacker to go through – so much so that the developers admit that it’s highly unlikely that anyone would actually bother trying – but the team says that they were successfully able to pick up audio data from a range of different objects, including plastic bags, trash cans, and cardboard boxes.

The developers said the microphone had a 90% success rate, and that the technique could potentially be used to identify a speaker’s characteristics from their surroundings, including gender or even political orientation.

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The research should help manufacturers of smart products that use LiDAR to improve their security, with the team recommending that the simple countermeasure of shutting down a LiDAR sensor if it stops spinning could prevent an attack.

So while this is a useful demonstration of the risks of smart technology, you probably don’t need to be suspicious of your remote vacuum just yet.

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Topics: Technology, Now, Robotics, Tech

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ZDNet
  1. ZDNet

    LidarPhone attack converts smart vacuums into microphones