RF Interference and Security: 4 Things to Know

Cities, factories and consumers are coming to rely on IoT technology. While it allows for the collection and use of huge amounts of data, it also creates new massive security risks.

These devices aren’t always properly shielded against electromagnetic interference (EMI) and radiofrequency interference (RF interference or RFI) — whether it comes from the normal performance of nearby electronic devices or is part of a jamming attack.

The number of devices communicating with each other is increasing, as is the amount of ambient RFI. Security researchers will need to be aware of the different ways in which RF interference can affect smart grids, data centers and other systems.

1. Home Security Systems Are Vulnerable to RF Jamming

One of the most common consumer Internet of Things (IoT) systems is home security. Like many IoT devices, they are highly vulnerable to RF jamming.

In 2015, cybersecurity researcher Marc Webster Tobias was able to easily jam one of the most popular home security systems on the market — a SimpliSafe alarm system — and walk through a secured apartment undetected.

Despite the stir this caused in the cybersecurity community, many home security systems still aren’t protected against this kind of attack. This year, security researcher and YouTuber the LockPickingLawyer demonstrated how a $2 signal jammer from Amazon could effectively disable a SimpliSafe home alarm system.

CNET senior editor Ry Crist, when verifying the video, confirmed that the signal jammer would keep the alarm from working properly. However, SimpliSafe does come with an anti-jamming system that sent an RF alert to Crist’s phone — not as good as an alarm, but enough to tip off a system’s owner that something is going on.

These home security systems continue to be vulnerable to attacks. The frequency needed to jam an alarm will vary from system to system, meaning an attacker would need to know the specific kind of system they were up against to properly infiltrate it.

It is unlikely that a large number of home security systems will face this kind of attack. However, they are still vulnerable to RF jamming, and these attacks aren’t unheard of. Earlier this year, burglars may have used Wi-Fi jamming to beat an ADT security system.

2. RFI Can Disable Smart Networks

Like home security systems, RFI can cause worse performance, unexpected behaviors or a total inability to communicate with other devices in smart networks that rely on IoT devices. This is bad for any system where information supplied by IoT devices is needed — like a smart grid or smart factory. In settings where systems are automatically making decisions based on IoT devices, this can be a serious problem.

Industrial smart networks are also more likely to be vulnerable to common causes of RFI — like a high concentration of employee smartphones, consumer electronics or high-voltage lines.

3. RF Receivers Can Detect and Report Jamming Attempts

How does one beat RF jamming? One solution is to implement a system that can detect jamming attempts.

RF receivers — which receive and analyze signals — can be used to detect interference and unusual RF patterns, like those consistent with a jamming attack.

Some data security companies are already using RF receivers as part of their data center security strategy. The receivers are designed to detect jamming attempts and immediately notify security staff. That way, if the jamming is the result of an attack, the team can respond right away — reducing the risk of lost or intercepted data or damaged hardware.

4. RFI and EMI Shielding Can Help Protect Devices

Contractors and officials that work with the U.S. government and military are worried about the possibilities of RF jamming being used as part of an attack. As a result, aerospace and military contractors are looking to RF and EM interference shielding technology to protect critical infrastructure and electronic equipment.

New developments in this technology may be useful for security researchers who want to avoid the chance that their devices are jammed altogether.

RF Interference and Security

RF interference and jamming can create a huge security hole in systems that rely on wirelessly connected IoT devices and smart technology.

There are ways to beat RF interference — or, at least, reduce the chance it will harm a system. Better device shielding and items that communicate when they are being jammed can allow for faster response times and reduce the risk that critical systems are shut down. They should apply to both highly sophisticated systems like smart grids as well as consumer IoT networks like home security systems.

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Kayla Matthews writes about cybersecurity and technology for publications like Malwarebytes, Security Boulevard, InformationWeek and CloudTweaks. To read more from Kayla, visit her blog: ProductivityBytes.com.