Home → Magazine Archive → February 2018 (Vol. 61, No. 2) → Risks of Trusting the Physics of Sensors → Abstract

Risks of Trusting the Physics of Sensors

By Kevin Fu, Wenyuan Xu

Communications of the ACM, Vol. 61 No. 2, Pages 20-23
10.1145/3176402

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Sensors are transducers that translate the physical into the electrical. Computer software then interprets and operates on the binary representations rather than the direct physical or electrical quantities. For instance, drone software uses the abstraction of a signed integer to represent the output of a gyroscope for flight stability and attitude control.13 A transduction attack exploits a vulnerability in the physics of a sensor to manipulate its output or induce intentional errors. For example, malicious acoustic interference can influence the output of sensors trusted by software in systems ranging from smartphones to medical devices to autonomous vehicles. Autonomous systems should remain trustworthy despite untrustworthy components. Techniques from embedded security can help protect against analog threats to autonomous systems in the Internet of Things.

Threats. Thieves can break into cars using man-in-the-middle (MITM) attacks against keyless entry systems.5 Automotive manufacturers can neutralize MITM attacks with proper use of cryptography. However, these MITM attacks exploit automotive systems that intend for radio waves to allow access. In contrast, transduction attacks use unintended functions of circuitry to threaten the integrity and availability of sensor output. Cryptography will not suffice to defend against transduction attacks. Attackers can exploit the physics of materials to fool sensors into becoming unintentional receivers of unwanted, malicious signals. The threat has grown such that the U.S. government warns manufacturers of transduction attacks that exploit the physics of sensors.1

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