OU studying privacy of listening smart devices

It sounds like the beginning of a horror movie... they’re always listening.

Acting as the protagonist in that movie though, the University of Oklahoma is working to create safeguard techniques for all the smart devices listening to you right now.

OU is conducting a three-year study to develop better ways to find hidden wireless devices, develop countermeasures against unauthorized voice or motion detection and create ways to safeguard your privacy.

From Ring doorbell cameras to voice assistants and many other such smart devices, technologists describe this network of internet-enabled data capturing devices the Internet of Things, or IoT.

These smart devices often use voice or motion detection to activate and then upload data to the cloud, which brings privacy concerns associated with how that data could be accessed.

The lead researcher on the project, Song Fang, Ph.D., assistant professor in the School of Computer Science, says traditionally these devices could be detected through a radio frequency scan or physical search but none of that is full proof.

“Lens detection and physical searches are cumbersome, as they require inspecting every corner of the target area. Radio frequency scanning may work when the device is actively transmitting, but existing work can only detect a sensor’s existence, not its exact location,” Fang said. “Further, detection is often insufficient, as the device owner may claim it is somewhere outside of the room or installed by others.”

This project focuses on developing practical approaches to pinpoint a hidden wireless device. The technique proposed by Fang can be carried out with a single smartphone and needs neither professional equipment nor to be connected to the same network as the target device.

“We have witnessed a boom in IoT device deployment in recent years, which brings numerous valuable benefits,” Fang said. “However, those IoT devices also raise serious security and privacy concerns that need to be addressed. The project will provide much-needed insight into how to protect user privacy against unauthorized video or voice recordings.”

The research project is funded by a $500,000 Secure and Trustworthy Cyberspace grant from the National Science Foundation Division of Computer and Network Systems.

The project began Oct. 1 and is expected to be completed Sept. 30, 2025.





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