Researchers find worrying vulnerabilities in key 6G technology

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Hackers may be able to launch two novel types of attack by exploiting weaknesses in programmable metasurfaces – a technology that will become key in the rollout of 6G networks.

Programmable metasurfaces are electromagnetic surfaces designed to integrate into everyday objects like wallpaper or window glass and aim to optimize communication channels. 

This technology could become key to maximizing the potential of 6G in the future. Speeds are expected to be orders of magnitude faster than even some of the best 5G home broadband and wireless networks.

Metasurface attacks

But metasurfaces can also be exploited to launch attacks on wireless networks, according to researchers with Peking University, University of Sannio and Southeast University. Their paper, published in Nature Electronics, demonstrates two kinds of attacks – active and passive – with metasurfaces at the heart of both. 

"The open nature of wireless communication means that data and signals are essentially out in the open, making the risk of physical level attacks a major concern,” researchers Lianlin Li, Vincenzo Galdi, and Tie Jun Cui told Tech Xplore

“Our project focuses on identifying some potential risks associated with programmable metasurfaces—a key enabling technology in the envisioned 6G landscape."

In one scenario, a user can passively use a metasurface to spy on wireless interactions between two devices and interfere with the signal. By rapidly shifting the properties of a metasurface, they could disrupt the communication between a router and its user too, grinding down data transfer speeds.

An active attack, meanwhile, could see an attacker generate and send fake data to a user while eavesdropping on a connection. Exploiting metasurfaces, in this scenario, can ramp up the rate at which fake data is transmitted, while winding down the efficacy of the legitimate connection. This can all happen while the attacker remains hard to detect.

The researchers hope their work can inform the industry to incorporate protective cybersecurity measures into metasurfaces as they’re developed over the coming years, ahead of a likely 2030 launch date for 6G.

"Continuing our research, we are dedicated to shaping secure 6G networks, taking into account both the benefits and challenges associated with programmable metasurfaces," Li, Galdi, and Cui said. "Currently, we are focused on developing targeted defenses against physical-layer attacks, by exploiting strategies such as beamforming, cooperative jamming with artificial noise, index modulation, and adaptive modulation."


Keumars Afifi-Sabet
Features Editor, ITPro

Keumars Afifi-Sabet is the Features Editor for ITPro, CloudPro and ChannelPro. He oversees the commissioning and publication of in-depth and long-form features, including case studies and op-eds, across a breadth of topics in the B2B technology space. He also contributes to a vareity of other publications including The Week Digital and TechRadar Pro. Keumars joined ITPro as a staff writer in 2018, and has expertise in a variety of areas including  AI, cyber security, cloud computing and digital transformation, as well as public policy and legislation.