'Wi-Peep' drone allows Wi-Fi-enabled devices to be seen through walls

Thursday, 17 November, 2022

'Wi-Peep' drone allows Wi-Fi-enabled devices to be seen through walls

A research team from the University of Waterloo has developed a drone-powered device that can use Wi-Fi networks to see through walls. The device, nicknamed Wi-Peep, can fly near a building and then using the inhabitants’ Wi-Fi network to identify and locate all Wi-Fi-enabled devices inside in a matter of seconds. The Wi-Peep exploits a loophole the researchers call polite Wi-Fi. Even if a network is password protected, smart devices will automatically respond to contact attempts from any device within range. The Wi-Peep sends several messages to a device as it flies and then measures the response time on each, enabling it to identify the device’s location to within a metre.

Dr Ali Abedi, an adjunct professor of computer science at Waterloo, said that Wi-Peep devices are like lights in the visible spectrum, and the walls are like glass. “Using similar technology, one could track the movements of security guards inside a bank by following the location of their phones or smartwatches. Likewise, a thief could identify the location and type of smart devices in a home, including security cameras, laptops and smart TVs, to find a good candidate for a break-in. In addition, the device’s operation via drone means that it can be used quickly and remotely without much chance of the user being detected,” Abedi said.

While scientists have explored Wi-Fi security vulnerability in the past using bulky, expensive devices, the Wi-Peep provides ease of accessibility and transportation, as it is built using a store-bought drone and $20 of easily purchased hardware. The researchers built the Wi-Peep to test their theory and quickly realised that anyone with the right expertise could easily create a similar device. “As soon as the Polite WiFi loophole was discovered, we realised this kind of attack was possible. On a fundamental level, we need to fix the Polite WiFi loophole so that our devices do not respond to strangers. We hope our work will inform the design of next-generation protocols,” Abedi said.

In the meantime, Abedi has urged Wi-Fi chip manufacturers to introduce an artificial, randomised variation in device response time, which will make calculations like the ones the Wi-Peep uses wildly inaccurate. The research findings paper was presented at the 28th Annual International Conference on Mobile Computing and Networking.

Image credit: iStock.com/marekuliasz

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