VIDEO: Cyber criminals use cheap devices to jam, disrupt signals in everyday objects

By Byron V. Acohido

The risk of being hacked comes with living in the digital age. But now another form of digital disruption—signal jamming— is rapidly gaining traction and shaping yet another type of risk for consumers and businesses to worry about.

We’ve come to rely on digital signals moving through the Internet cloud and in and out of our computing devices. The problem is: it turns out that jamming digital signals is an easy thing to do.

Just when you thought it was safe

Security and privacy experts are starting to discuss how the disruptions wrought by digital signal jamming can cause harm ranging from the trivial to potentially catastrophic. Clearly, the horse is out of the barn.

The largest fine ever issued by the Federal Communications Commission—$34.9 million—was levied in June 2014 against Chinese online retailer CTS Technology for marketing nearly 300 signal jammers in the United States over more than two years.

Digital jammers are illegal in the United States because they can block 911 and law enforcement communications. Yet the devices remain cheap and easy to acquire on the Internet. People with a range of motivations are buying jammers and putting them to different uses.

Dean Liptak, a high school science teacher in Pasco County, Florida, for instance, earlier this year got fed up with his students disregarding school policy requiring them to turn off their cell phones while class was in session.

So Liptak used a jammer to shut down cell phone usage while he was lecturing. Verizon detected their customers’ phones being jammed in and around the high school and put a stop to Liptak’s use of a jammer as a teaching aid.

Westin

Meanwhile, last May a ring of clever car thieves in the United Kingdom used a type of jammer available for less that $50 on the Internet to disrupt shoppers in the act of digitally locking their vehicles at the Manchester Fort Shopping Park.

The thieves sent a jamming signal on the radio frequency typically used in digital key fobs, so the cars actually remained unlocked. The device also enabled them to bypass car coding and reprogram the starting sequence to drive off with the car.

Digital signal jammers remain widely available on the Internet, selling for $20 to $200. Some sellers readily acknowledge such devices are illegal in the United States, but guarantee delivery to U.S. purchasers anyway.

These devices are getting in the hands of criminals, and I think we’re going to see more and more of these types of devices being used in more traditional crimes,” says Ken Westin, senior security analyst at information security vendor Tripwire.

Darker criminal scenarios aren’t hard to image. “If I can jam the cell phone frequency in your house, basically I’ve just ensured that you can’t call 911. I can block your alarm system, as well. I could do a home invasion, and there’s no way for you to call for help,“ Westin says.

Digital warfare

It’s a safe bet that digital jammers already are an integral part of the cyber arsenals of the world’s superpowers. India, for instance, initiated a process last year to procure digital jammers to disrupt any attacks by radio and cell phone controlled explosive devices.

The ability to jam a digital signal to a cell phone, automobile, medical device, home appliance or even explosive weaponry is now available to anyone with $200 or less.

You don’t have to necessarily intercept a signal, if you can simply jam that signal, then you’re able to compromise security,” Westin observes. “People need to be aware there are weaknesses in these systems.”

This article also appeared in ThirdCertainty.com

More on emerging threats:
Security must be part of device design as Internet of Things evolves
Samsung’s SmartTV foreshadows Internet of Things eavesdropping
Health care data at risk: Internet of Things facilitates health care data breaches

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