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Computer Scientists Show That Robot Vacuums Can Spy on Private Conversations


robot vacuum at foot of person using a smartphone

Credit: Getty Images

Computer scientists from the National University of Singapore have demonstrated that it is possible to spy on private conversations using a common robot vacuum cleaner and its built-in Lidar (light detection and ranging) sensor.

A method called LidarPhone is a novel side-channel attack that repurposes a robot vacuum's Lidar sensor normally used for navigation into a laser-based microphone to eavesdrop on private conversations.

The research team describes their work in "LidarPhone: Acoustic Eavesdropping Using a Lidar Sensor," presented at SenSys 2020, the 18th ACM Conference on Embedded Networked Sensor Systems.

"The proliferation of smart devices — including smart speakers and smart security cameras — has increased the avenues for hackers to snoop on our private moments," says first author Sriram Sami, a doctoral student from the NUS Department of Computer Science. "Our method shows it is now possible to gather sensitive data just by using something as innocuous as a household robot vacuum cleaner."

The researchers recommend users consider not connecting their robot vacuum cleaners to the Internet. They also recommend that Lidar sensor manufacturers incorporate a mechanism that cannot be overridden, to prevent the internal laser from firing when the Lidar is not rotating.

From National University of Singapore
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