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MIT researchers develop frequency-hopping transmitter to protect IoT devices against hackers

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In 2018, an estimated 21 billion sensors and devices are connected, forming what is known as the Internet of Things (IoT). This figure is expected to exceed 50 billion by 2020. Although this technology has helped improve the life of users, this vast pool of connected devices are also vulnerable to attack.

Known for their various and hard-to-patch vulnerabilities, hackers often exploit IoT device flaws to locate, intercept, gather or overwrite data, ensnare them into botnets, jam their signals and more to wreak havoc.

To improve IoT security, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have come up with a novel transmission technique named 'Frequency Hopping' to help protect wireless devices against hackers. The researchers have invented a transmitter that can secure billions of IoT products by frequency hops each individual 1 or 0 bit of a data packet that a device sends out to a unique, random frequency every microsecond, thus preventing attackers from intercepting and manipulating its data.

The transmitter uses frequency-agile devices called bulk acoustic wave (BAW) resonators to enable the rapid switch between a wide range of RF channels and send information for a data bit with every hop. A channel generator is also incorporated to select the random channel to send each bit every microsecond. To further support this ultrafast frequency hopping, the researchers created a new wireless protocol which is different from those being currently used.

"With the current existing [transmitter] architecture, you wouldn't be able to hop data bits at that speed with low power. By developing this protocol and radio frequency architecture together, we offer physical-layer security for connectivity of everything,” Rabia Tugce Yazicigil, a postdoctoral research associate in MIT’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and the first author in the paper on the innovative transmitter, said in a press release.

Yazicigil noted that the transmitter could help secure medical devices such as insulin pumps and pacemakers among other products against malicious cyberattacks.

“When people start corrupting the messages [of these devices] it starts affecting people’s lives,” Yazicigil noted. The researchers will be presenting their paper on the breakthrough transmitter at the IEEE Radio Frequency Integrated Circuits Symposium.

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