UMIACS Faculty Researcher Asks: Could Your Robotic Vacuum Be Listening to You?

Nov 18, 2020

A team of researchers demonstrated that popular robotic household vacuum cleaners can be remotely hacked to act as microphones.

By collecting information from the laser-based navigation system in a vacuum robot, the researchers were able to apply signal processing and deep learning techniques to recover speech and identify television programs playing in the same room as the device.

The research team—which includes Nirupam Roy (in photo), an assistant professor of computer science with a joint appointment in the University of Maryland Institute for Advanced Computer Studies—recently presented their work at the Association for Computing Machinery’s Conference on Embedded Networked Sensor Systems (SenSys 2020).

The research demonstrates the potential for any device that uses light detection and ranging (LiDAR) technology to be manipulated for collecting sound, despite not having a microphone.

“We welcome these devices into our homes, and we don't think anything about it,” says Roy, who collaborated on the research with Jun Han, an assistant professor of computer science at the National University of Singapore. “But we have shown that even though these devices don't have microphones, we can repurpose the systems they use for navigation to spy on conversations and potentially reveal private information.”

The researchers emphasize that vacuum cleaners are just one example of potential vulnerability to LiDAR-based spying. Many other devices could be open to similar attacks such as smartphone infrared sensors used for face recognition or passive infrared sensors used for motion detection.

“I believe this is significant work that will make the manufacturers aware of these possibilities and trigger the security and privacy community to come up with solutions to prevent these kinds of attacks,” Roy says.

Go here to read the full news release on this work.