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Smartphone sensors preserve user data

Posted: 02 May 2014     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:University of Illinois  sensor  smartphone  accelerometer 

According to a team of researchers from the University of Illinois, the University of South Carolina and Zhejiang University, signals produced by smartphones turn out to be so identifiable that it seems impossible to use them anonymously. Even basic privacy may be difficult to achieve. In spite of all the standardisation and quality control implemented for accelerometers and other sensors built into smartphones, each sensor contains enough tiny, unique imperfections to identify, not only the physical component, but also the data it records.

"Even if you erase the app in the phone, or even erase and reinstall all software the fingerprint still stays inherent," said Romit Roy Choudhury, the UI associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science who led the team. "That's a serious threat."

By analysing data from the accelerometers from more than 100 devices, the team was able to determine that tiny differences in the data recorded by the accelerometers were unique to the sensor itself, rather than reflecting flaws or differences in materials or environment from a particular plant of production line.

The differences are enough to identify a particular accelerometer with 96 per cent accuracy, stated Sanorita Dey, a University of Illinois graduate student and member of the research team. "We do not need to know any other information about the phone, no phone number or SIM card number. Just by looking at the data, we can tell you which device it's coming from. It's almost like another identifier."

Though the team looked only at accelerometers, the results suggest that data from gyroscopes, magnetometers, microphones, cameras and other devices could also contain markers that would identify them uniquely as having been recorded with a specific device. The implication is that even consumers trying to protect their identities by refusing to share their location data, name or other personal information might still be identified and tracked individually by apps that collect sensor data and use cloud-based applications for part of their functions.

Even a pedometer app that counts a user's steps with accelerometer data (and calculates distance travelled or calories burned by sending the data to a cloud service) not only could identify the device itself, but also could get a rough idea of its location from the cellphone towers that provide the network connection.

The team's findings confirm what a Virginia Tech team reported in September. That team found that the unique response of an accelerometer or other MEMS sensor to an electric charge is idiosyncratic enough to identify the device from which it came. The paper suggested that sensor-data fingerprints might be useful for identifying and authenticating devices attached to the Internet of Things.

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