Bit-level frequency hopping secures data, find MIT researchers

June 12, 2018 // By Julien Happich
In order to prevent hackers from intercepting wirelessly transmitted data, researchers from MIT went beyond traditional frequency hopping techniques that change the transmitting RF channel every thousands of bits or so.

They designed a transmitter able to frequency hop each individual 1 or 0 bit of a data packet, every microsecond, fast enough to thwart even the quickest hackers, they report in a paper titled "Frequency-Hopping Transmitter for Securing Low-Power Wireless Devices" presented at the IEEE Radio Frequency Integrated Circuits Symposium.

Lead author Rabia Tugce Yazicigil from MIT's Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science explains that while today's transmitters are susceptible to selective jamming due to long dwell times in a given channel, such attacks can be mitigated through a physically-implemented ultra-fast bit-level frequency-hopping (FH) scheme, based on the frequency agility of bulk acoustic wave resonators (BAW).

As a proof of concept, the researchers designed an integrated bit-level FH transmitter (TX) that hops at a 1μs period and uses data-driven random dynamic channel selection to enable secure wireless communications with additional data encryption. The system consists of a time-interleaved BAW-based TX implemented in 65nm CMOS technology with 80MHz coverage in the 2.4GHz ISM band. In operation, the system only draws 10.9mW of power from a 1.1V supply, a low power consumption that was only achievable through a physical-layer implementation of the ultra-fast frequency-hopping scheme.

In order to randomize channel selection and bit encoding, the researchers employed a system that each microsecond generates a pair of separate channels across the 80-channel spectrum. Based on a pre-shared secret key with the transmitter, the receiver does some calculations to designate one channel to carry a 1 bit and the other to carry a 0 bit (instead of relying on a fixed 250kH offset for 1s and 0s). The receiver can then pinpoint the channel with the highest energy (for if there is a 1 to decode).

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