MIT researchers create wireless transmitter to thwart hackers

Rapid frequency hopping helps protect data.

Researchers at MIT have found a way to stump hackers who are trying to snag data from wireless signals. They've created a transmitter that moves data packets between different radio frequencies rapidly enough to keep hackers at bay.

Typically, this method, known as frequency hopping, sends each data packet over a random radio channel. These packets often contain thousands of bits, and larger packets move just sluggishly enough to let hackers intercept them. The MIT transmitter, however, goes a step further; it bounces each individual bit at random every microsecond across 80 different channels, which is too fast and low-level for hackers to keep up with. The researchers also developed a different type of wireless protocol (i.e. a new type of WiFi or Bluetooth) to support the rapid frequency hopping.

The receiving device needs to understand how data is being sent to it, so the sending device shares a key before transmitting the bits. The receiving device can then make sense of how the data is being split and stitch it together, but any potential hackers won't -- so for them, trying to fish the data out of the air and make sense of it is nigh-on impossible. The scientists are presenting a paper on the transmitter at the IEEE Radio Frequency Integrated Circuits Symposium, which starts this weekend.

As the number and types of connected devices expands rapidly, it's becoming even more important to secure the data they're transmitting. The researchers noted that their transmitter could protect medical devices like pacemakers and insulin pumps from attacks, for instance. The technology could also "secure smart meters that read home utilities, control heating, or monitor the grid." Given that hackers have attacked power grids and other public resources, this could be an important development in shutting them out. News of the transmitter follows other recent MIT work on wireless data, like a way to give drones and self-driving cars the most current possible information.