Your WiFi Router Can See Everything You and Your Employees Are Doing

In one of our earlier articles, How to Protect Your Organization’s WiFi From Cyberattackers, we’ve listed several methods that hackers and other malicious actors can employ to breach a network – evil twinning, rogue access point, DDoS, etc. These attack strategies are designed to spy on a network’s digital activities (gain access to email communication, for example) or compromise data integrity (corrupt or restrict access to it).

Unfortunately, the risks posed by poor WiFi security do not stop there. Advancements in technology, including machine learning and AI, are making it possible for WiFi routers to literally track our every move – our location within a room, what keys we are pressing on a keyboard, what we are saying on a call, and more. While presenting a range of benefits, this capability is also dangerous to the safety and privacy of individuals and organizations. 

How WiFi works

To understand how a router can track physical movements, it is essential to first understand how WiFi works. WiFi uses 2.4Ghz and 5Ghz radio frequencies to communicate signals between devices – a mobile device, for example, and a router. Whenever you request access to anything on the internet, this request is converted into binary code. Say you want to read an article – like the one you are reading right now. Clicking an article’s link causes your device to send out a request in the form of a series of 1s and 0s. Where DSL, for example, enables the transmission of a request over a wire, WiFi is wireless. The WiFi-enabled device converts binary code into wave frequencies. Your router catches these frequencies on the other end, converting them back into the series of 1s and 0s and giving you access to the requested article. All of this happens in a blink of an eye.

We live in an ocean of radio waves. While you can’t see radio frequencies, they are all around us, being transmitted and received by millions of devices around the world at all times. WiFi access points are everywhere these days – office buildings, coffee shops, residential complexes. You can even turn your mobile device into a mini router through a process called tethering. Every router has its range within which it can reach you and your device – generally between 100 and 300 feet.

A router’s tracking capability explained

Now that we’ve established that routers communicate with our devices through waves that are physically around us, we can understand how that enables routers to monitor us and our movements. Using waves to capture information is nothing new. An X-ray machine uses electromagnetic waves, an ultrasound machine uses high-frequency sound waves, and MRI technology uses a combination of magnets and radio waves. These medical imaging technologies are made possible by our bodies’ interaction with waves – what we absorb and reflect.

The same principle applies to routers and their ability to capture physical movements. Based on how our bodies interact with the transmitted waves, a router can capture information on changes within a space.

Several studies conducted over the last decade demonstrate this ability. For example, in 2016, a group of researchers from the University of New South Wales, Australia, and Oxford University, UK, presented a paper that shows that the particular walking style of each individual causes unique disturbances in the WiFi signals, which, in turn, can be used to identify individuals. Their functioning prototype, WiFi ID, could correctly identify a person 93% of the time when choosing between two people and 77% when choosing among six. In 2020, researchers from Peking University, China, and RMIT University, Australia unveiled FingerDraw, a “sub-wavelength level finger motion tracking system using commodity WiFi devices, without attaching any sensor to finger.”

Other studies have shown that wave disturbances can be used to track gestures and mouth movements, even through a wall, when trained with the correct data.

What this means for your organization

The wireless router market was valued at $10.6 billion in 2020 and is expected to expand to $17.1 billion by 2026. As machine learning and AI capabilities improve – and they indeed will – router-based identification and tracking will become an everyday reality.

There are enormous benefits that come with this. For example, this type of technology can track elders’ movements and send out an alert in case of a fall. It can be used to identify intruders and make smart homes even smarter.

However, there are, of course, dangers that come with router-tracking both to individuals and organizations.

Suppose a malicious actor manages to access a router and install such tracking software (or trick someone with authorized access into installing such software through social engineering). In that case, this person will be able to track the movements of those within the router’s range. The possibilities of exploiting this vulnerability are endless. Imagine a nation-state actor being able to record government employees’ passwords based on their fingers’ movements on a keyboard or a hacker gaining access to confidential data like medical records or bank account information whenever someone says it out loud.

The good news is that such type of technology does not yet pose an immediate threat. It relies heavily on large volumes of training data, rigorous training, and highly controlled environments. However, with exponential acceleration in technological advancements, it is not unreasonable to expect this technology to evolve to a deployable level within the next 5-10 years.

How to protect your organization from WiFi threats

Everything begins with employee training. 60% of breaches can be linked back to human errors. Educate your employees on the most common types of cyberattacks, how they can spot suspicious activities, and how to change their daily habits to minimize the risk of compromising the security of data.

Switch to WPA3 if you haven’t already. The third-generation security protocol offers more robust security features, including 192-bit encryption and its mandated use of Protected Management Frames.

Segregate your networks. Keep your private WiFi network separate from the one you make publicly available.

Keep your hardware and software up to date. Updates are typically introduced for two reasons: 1) improved/new features; 2) patches to identified vulnerabilities.

Regularly run access point scans to identify and eliminate unauthorized connections.

Develop either a firm BYOD policy or purchase a BYOD management solution (or both).

Invest in Wireless Intrusion Prevention sensors. They will monitor your organization’s airspace and network for rogue or misconfigured devices and deploy real-time intrusion prevention measures.

Finally, regularly run vulnerability scans to help identify vulnerabilities in the network that a hacker may potentially employ, including scanning the access points themselves for misconfigurations.