Fans of Doctor Who are ever-so-slightly excited that the TV series’ sonic screwdrivers – a specialized tool that uses sound to manipulate objects in many fancy ways – are more reality than fiction these days. You can now legitimately make things levitate in mid-air using precisely calibrated sonic waves.
The venerable Time Lord’s sonic screwdriver can also be used to hack into things like computer systems, gadgets, and robots, which you may think will remain firmly in the world of science fiction – but thanks to researchers at the Universities of Michigan and South Carolina, this is now possible too.
Although the technology is still fairly primitive, the team have announced that their technique – which uses malicious “music” files containing intricately tuned sound patterns – could be used to trick the accelerometers inside plenty of devices, including smartphones, vehicles, and medical apparatuses, just to name a few.
Using a $5 speaker, the team used their music files to add thousands of fictitious steps to FitBits, and they manipulated a smartphone’s accelerometer into thinking it was moving in order to pilot a connected remote control car. These sound waves were emitted from both remote devices and from the phones themselves using embedded sound files concealed within emails and text messages.
How to hack gadgets using sound waves. Kevin Fu via YouTube
“Humans have sensors, like eyes, ears and a nose. We trust our senses and we use them to make decisions,” first author Timothy Trippel, a doctoral student in computer science and engineering at the University of Michigan, said in a statement. “If autonomous systems can't trust their senses, then the security and reliability of those systems will fail.”
The team didn’t demonstrate how to unlock phones or bypass other forms of security with their sonic sneakiness, but these proof-of-concept hacks show that systems with accelerometers are vulnerable to “physical” forms of hacking, not just the digital versions we’ve come to associate with that loaded word.
If this form of sonic attack is scaled up, there’s a good chance it could manipulate data on medical hardware or influence the flights of drones that use accelerometers to determine altitude and balance. The team even advise that particularly sensitive devices in the future be built with acoustic dampening software to prevent such hacking from taking place.
Still, there’s no need to fret at present. Your smartphone probably can’t be unlocked and used to text all your friends and family using one of these evil soundtracks. Nevertheless, this is another thrilling example of how a key concept in science fiction may one day be something more than the product of a scriptwriter’s imagination.
You can check out the technical specifics of the hacks in the authors’ paper, published in the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers journal.