How bandwidth thieves will be nabbed in the future

A bandwidth-theft solution that utilizes crowdsourcing gets funding, promises to change how pirates are caught

How bandwidth thieves will be nabbed in the future
Credit: Martyn Williams

Experts say spectrum pilfering is going to become a major industrial problem as software-defined radio becomes more prevalent. Software-defined radio allows frequencies and bands to be simply altered in a device through coding rather than via expensive hardware changes.

Locating and detecting thieves who are looting bandwidth on radio spectrum could become easier, however, once a crowdsourcing project gets going.

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The National Science Foundation will be investing $1 million over three years in a poaching detection project led by researchers at the University of Utah, School of Computing.

With this project, mobile phone and laptop users will be tasked with collecting data about bandwidth use, using software that runs in the background, the university says in a release on its website.

“We crowdsource for business startups, art projects, inventions, even families in need. So why not ask cell phone users to contribute in helping catch high-tech thieves?” it says.

Bandwidth theft could become a big problem. Hackers will likely realize the value of spectrum as the Internet of Things, communications and massive big data collection kicks into gear.

“Once you have that software-defined radio capability, hackers will write all kinds of bad apps for them,” says Professor Sneha Kumar Kasera, who is leading the project.

Indeed, some say malware could be used to bring communications systems to their knees once software-defined radios are in widespread use.

“Imagine terrorists using malware to attack software-defined radios that clog up emergency-services radio frequencies in the time of a crisis,” the university says.

Crowdsourcing to catch a thief

It believes it has a solution, though: “Everyday users of cellphones and laptops could aid authorities in catching these kinds of hackers.”

And crowdsourcing would be behind the system.

“All devices with built-in radios can receive signals within a certain frequency range. When someone with a phone or laptop briefly runs Kasera’s software, it could tell authorities if a hacker is using unauthorized bandwidth of a certain frequency range and at what strength it’s being transmitted,” it explains.

Triangulation could then be used then to catch the frequency misappropriation as the heist occurs. That method is indeed used to catch abusers today: An administrative body, such as the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) triangulates a position and then obtains a search warrant to pounce on the bad guy.

However, the agency has to wait until it gets reports of interference and other trouble from other users before it even knows there’s a problem. Then it has to set up the sting—physically, with bodies in the field, and at the appropriate time as to obtain the evidence. That’s hard if the pirate is mobile, and overall it’s geared towards identifying individuals rather than observing trends, such as a band being hijacked in its entirety for a particular niche use.

The University of Utah’s project should reduce much of the work: laptops and cell phones simply collect surrounding radio frequency data and report it in real time—ironically, over radio.

“Our goal is to be able to monitor for unauthorized use 100 percent of the time, cover 100 percent of the area and cover 100 percent of the frequency, and that can only be achieved at that scale through crowdsourcing,” Kasera says.

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