Engineers create hack to make automotive radar 'hallucinate'

Friday, 02 February, 2024

Engineers create hack to make automotive radar 'hallucinate'

Engineers at Duke University have demonstrated a system they’ve dubbed ‘MadRadar’ for fooling automotive radar sensors into believing almost anything is possible.

The technology can hide the approach of an existing car, create a phantom car where none exists or even trick the radar into thinking a real car has quickly deviated from its actual course — and it can achieve this feat in the blink of an eye, without having any prior knowledge about the specific settings of the victim’s radar.

“Without knowing much about the targeted car’s radar system, we can make a fake vehicle appear out of nowhere or make an actual vehicle disappear in real-world experiments,” said Associate Professor Miroslav Pajic, who co-led the research. “We’re not building these systems to hurt anyone; we’re demonstrating the existing problems with current radar systems to show that we need to fundamentally change how we design them.”

In modern cars that feature assistive and autonomous driving systems, radar is typically used to detect moving vehicles in front of and around the vehicle. It also helps to augment visual and laser-based systems to detect vehicles moving in front of or behind the car.

Because there are now so many different cars using radar on a typical highway, it is unlikely that any two vehicles will have the exact same operating parameters, even if they share a make and model. For example, they might use slightly different operating frequencies or take measurements at slightly different intervals. Because of this, previous demonstrations of radar-spoofing systems have needed to know the specific parameters being used.

“Think of it like trying to stop someone from listening to the radio,” Pajic said. “To block the signal or to hijack it with your own broadcast, you’d need to know what station they were listening to first.”

In demonstrating MadRadar, the research team showed off the capabilities of a radar-spoofing system they’ve built that can accurately detect a car’s radar parameters in less than a quarter of a second. Once they’ve been discovered, the system can send out its own radar signals to fool the target’s radar. Each demonstration of MadRadar was done on real-world radar systems in actual cars moving at roadway speeds, showcasing its impressive accuracy — if the spoofing radar signals are even a microsecond off the mark, the fake datapoint would be misplaced by the length of a football field.

In one demonstration, MadRadar sends signals to the target car to make it perceive another car where none actually exist; this involves modifying the signal’s characteristics based on time and velocity in such a way that it mimics what a real contact would look like. In a second and much more complicated example, it fools the target’s radar into thinking the opposite — that there is no passing car when one actually does exist. It achieves this by delicately adding masking signals around the car’s true location to create a sort of bright spot that confuses the radar system.

“You have to be judicious about adding signals to the radar system, because if you simply flooded the entire field of vision, it’d immediately know something was wrong,” said David Hunt, a PhD student working in Pajic’s lab.

In a third kind of attack, the researchers mix the two approaches to make it seem as though an existing car has suddenly changed course. The researchers recommend that carmakers try randomising a radar system’s operating parameters over time and adding safeguards to the processing algorithms to spot similar attacks.

“Imagine adaptive cruise control, which uses radar, believing that the car in front of me was speeding up, causing your own car to speed up, when in reality it wasn’t changing speed at all,” Pajic said. “If this were done at night, by the time your car’s cameras figured it out you’d be in trouble.”

The team’s research, set to be presented at the 2024 Network and Distributed System Security Symposium in late February, shows that manufacturers should immediately begin taking steps to better safeguard their products.

“These lessons go far beyond radar systems in cars as well,” Pajic said. “If you want to build drones that can explore dark environments, like in search and rescue or reconnaissance operations, that don’t cost thousands of dollars, radar is the way to go.”


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