An international team of researchers, led by IMDEA Networks and Northeastern University in collaboration with NYU Tandon School of Engineering, Universidad Carlos III de Madrid, IMDEA Software, University of Calgary, and the International Computer Science Institute, has unveiled groundbreaking findings on the security and privacy challenges posed by the ever-growing prevalence of opaque and technically complex Internet of Things (IoT) devices in smart homes.
Smart Homes: Trusted and Secure Environments?
Smart homes are becoming increasingly interconnected, comprising an array of consumer-oriented IoT devices ranging from smartphones and smart TVs to virtual assistants and CCTV cameras. These devices have cameras, microphones, and other ways of sensing what is happening in our most private spaces — our homes.
An important question is: can we trust that these devices in our homes are safely handling and protecting the sensitive data they have access to?
“When we think of what happens between the walls of our homes, we think of it as a trusted, private place. In reality, we find that smart devices in our homes are piercing that veil of trust and privacy — in ways that allow nearly any company to learn what devices are in your home, to know when you are home, and learn where your home is. These behaviours are generally not disclosed to consumers, and there is a need for better protections in the home,” said David Choffnes, Associate Professor of Computer Science and Executive Director of the Cybersecurity and Privacy Institute at Northeastern University.
The research team's extensive study, titled "In the Room Where It Happens: Characterizing Local Communication and Threats in Smart Homes," was presented this week at the ACM Internet Measurement Conference (ACM IMC'23) in Montreal (Canada).
The paper delves for the first time into the intricacies of local network interactions between 93 IoT devices and mobile apps, revealing a plethora of previously undisclosed security and privacy concerns with actual real-world implications.
While most users typically view local networks as a trusted and safe environment, the study's findings illuminate new threats associated with the inadvertent exposure of sensitive data by IoT devices within local networks using standard protocols such as UPnP or mDNS.
These threats include the exposure of unique device names, UUIDs, and even household geolocation data, all of which can be harvested by companies involved in surveillance capitalism without user awareness.
According to Vijay Prakash, PhD student from NYU Tandon who co-authored the paper, "analyzing the data collected by IoT Inspector, we found evidence of IoT devices inadvertently exposing at least one PII (Personally Identifiable Information), like unique hardware address (MAC), UUID, or unique device names, in thousands of real world smart homes. Any single PII is useful for identifying a household, but combining all three of them together makes a house very unique and easily identifiable. For comparison, if a person is fingerprinted using the simplest browser fingerprinting technique, they are as unique as one in 1,500 people. If a smart home with all three types of identifiers is fingerprinted, it is as unique as one in 1.12 million smart homes."
These local network protocols can be employed as side-channels to access data that is supposedly protected by several mobile app permissions such as household locations.
“A side channel is a sneaky way of indirectly accessing sensitive data. For example, Android app developers are supposed to request and obtain users’ consent to access data like geolocation. However, we have shown that certain spyware apps and advertising companies do abuse local network protocols to silently access such sensitive information without any user awareness. All they have to do is kindly ask for it to other IoT devices deployed in the local network using standard protocols like UPnP,” said Narseo Vallina-Rodriguez, Associate Research Professor of IMDEA Networks and co-founder of AppCensus.
“Our study shows that the local network protocols used by IoT devices are not sufficiently protected and expose sensitive information about the home and our use of the devices. This information is being collected in an opaque way and makes it easier to create profiles of our habits or socioeconomic level,” adds Juan Tapiador, professor at UC3M.
The Wider Implications
The impact of this research extends far beyond academia. The findings underscore the imperative for manufacturers, software developers, IoT and mobile platform operators, and policymakers to take action to enhance the privacy and security guarantees of smart home devices and households. The research team responsibly disclosed these issues to vulnerable IoT device vendors and to Google's Android Security Team, already triggering security improvements in some of these products.
About IMDEA Networks: IMDEA Networks is a non-profit, independent research institute located in Madrid (Spain). Its multinational research team conducts cutting-edge fundamental research in the fields of computer and communication networks to develop future network principles and technologies; designing and creating today the networks of tomorrow.
About Northeastern University: Founded in 1898, Northeastern is a global research university and the recognized leader in experience-driven lifelong learning. Our world-renowned experiential approach empowers our students, faculty, alumni, and partners to create impact far beyond the confines of discipline, degree, and campus.
About NYU Tandon School of Engineering: The NYU Tandon School of Engineering is home to a community of renowned faculty, undergraduate and graduate students united in a mission to understand and create technology that powers cities, enables worldwide communication, fights climate change, and builds healthier, safer, and more equitable real and digital worlds. NYU Tandon dates back to 1854 and is a vital part of New York University and its unparalleled global network.
About UC3M: The Universidad Carlos III de Madrid (UC3M) is a Spanish public university that excels in research, teaching and innovation. It is among the best universities in the world in the QS World University Rankings 2024 and among the best universities for the employability of its graduates, according to the latest edition of the Times Higher Education (THE) Global University Employability Ranking.
About IMDEA Software: The IMDEA Software Institute is a non-profit, independent research institute promoted by the Madrid Regional Government to perform research of excellence and technology transfer in the methods, languages, and tools that will allow the cost-effective development of software products with sophisticated functionality and high quality.
About University of Calgary: UCalgary is Canada’s entrepreneurial university, located in Canada’s most enterprising city. It is a top research university and one of the highest-ranked universities of its age. Founded in 1966, its 35,000 students experience an innovative learning environment, made rich by research, hands-on experiences and entrepreneurial thinking. It is Canada’s leader in the creation of start-ups. For more information, visit ucalgary.ca.
About International Computer Science Institute: ICSI is an independent non-profit research institute affiliated with the University of California, Berkeley. With a focus on scientific excellence and social impact, ICSI transcends disciplinary boundaries in computing and data sciences and collaborates internationally and across sectors to inspire breakthroughs.
Aniketh Girish, Tianrui Hu, Vijay Prakash, Daniel J. Dubois, Srdjan Matic, Danny Yuxing Huang, Serge Egelman, Joel Reardon, Juan Tapiador, David Choffnes, and Narseo Vallina-Rodriguez. 2023. In the Room Where It Happens: Characterizing Local Communication and Threats in Smart Homes. In Proceedings of the 2023 ACM on Internet Measurement Conference (IMC '23). Association for Computing Machinery, New York, NY, USA, 437–456. https://doi.org/10.1145/3618257.3624830