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Research Shows Smartphone Sensors Leave Trackable Fingerprints

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New research suggests smartphone sensors contain fingerprints.

An example of how accelerometer data shared with separate traffic and health applications could indicate the location of a smartphone user.

Credit: University of Illinois News Bureau

Researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) have demonstrated that fingerprints exist within smartphone sensors because of imperfections during the hardware manufacturing process.

The researchers focused on the accelerometer, which tracks three-dimensional movements of the phone, but the findings suggest other sensors could leave equally unique fingerprints.

When hardware is manufactured, the factory cannot produce the identical result in millions of units, and the imperfections create fingerprints, according to UIUC professor Romit Roy Choudhury. However, he notes the fingerprints are only visible when accelerometer data signals are analyzed in detail. Most applications do not require this level of analysis, but the data shared with all applications still holds the fingerprints, and if a cybercriminal wanted to perform the necessary analysis, they could do so.

The researchers analyzed more than 100 devices over nine months and found they were able to differentiate one sensor from another with 96-percent accuracy.

The research suggests that even when a smartphone application does not have access to location information, there are other means of identifying the user's activities. The researchers found that if accelerometer data were processed directly on the device, rather than on the cloud, the fingerprint could be removed before sending information to the application.

From University of Illinois News Bureau
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