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Annabelle Theobald

A dangerous game with proximity and distance

Nowadays, smartphones and smartwatches already find use in unlocking doors or contactless payments at the cash register. Distance measurement methods used for this purpose, such as NFC, Bluetooth, or 5G, remain extremely vulnerable to attacks. One of the research topics of new CISPA faculty Dr. Mridula Singh, is to develop secure methods for the ever-growing application field of precise distance measurements and positioning.

Convenience comes at a price - and it can be pretty high, as some car owners found out in the past when their vehicle was stolen from under their noses, literally. Modern cars come with the ease of unlocking them as soon as the key is close enough, no need to insert it into the lock or even hold it in hand. This is enabled by a passive keyless system where the car and the key measure distance by exchanging wireless signals. This function is enormously practical when you have an armful of shopping bags, for example. But it is also dangerous: With relatively simple technical aids, attackers can manipulate the measured distance and gain access to the car while the owners are sitting unsuspectingly in their kitchen with the key in their pocket. 

A new distance measurement technique based on ultra-wideband (UWB) co-developed by Mridula Singh makes it harder to cheat the measured distance. It is secure against distance reduction attacks and able to recognize and warn against distance extension attacks. The work that Dr. Mridula Singh did is instrumental in enabling theft-resistant keyless systems so that people can enjoy coffee in their kitchen without worrying about their cars. The UWB technology has recently been integrated into the keyless system of many cars, including the Volkswagen ID3.

"Applications that rely on precise distance measurements and accurate positioning have increased enormously in recent years," Singh explains. Ensuring that positioning is accurate and secure can be a matter of life and death. "If attackers manage to fool autonomous vehicles into thinking they are further away from obstacles or other vehicles than they actually are, they can provoke serious accidents."

To satisfy the ever-increasing demand for positioning information, many communication systems, including WiFi, LTE, and 5G, have enabled positioning. "So far, however, the techniques they use still have a lot of security gaps," Singh explains. In her recent work, V-Range, she shows that there is a possibility of achieving secure positioning in 5G systems, which will bring about secure positioning to many applications, e.g., for healthcare, transportation, or smart cities. V-Range is directly compatible with existing standards and, therefore, can be easily implemented. "Building on this work, I will be doing more work on position measurement techniques and vehicle safety at CISPA in the future."

Mridula Singh's research focuses on the intersection of wireless communication, system security, and autonomous systems. Until a few weeks ago, the 31-year-old was a PhD student herself and was supervised at ETH by Prof. Srdjan Capkun. As a senior scientist at CISPA, the native Indian will provide advice and support to young researchers in the future. "It will be a challenge because my role will turn around virtually overnight, but I am very much looking forward to it and the exciting work with my new colleagues at CISPA."

translated by: Oliver Schedler