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Even Our Lightbulbs Are Spying On Us Now

So much for cybersecurity: Identity thieves can use this bright low-tech new idea. Even Our Lightbulbs Are Spying On Us Now

Scientists at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel have discovered a way to eavesdrop on entire conversations by studying the vibration patterns in a lightbulb. Honest.

Related: How Do I Defeat Hidden Microphones And Voice Recorders?

In a terrifying-yet-true paper entitled “Lamphone: Real-Time Passive Sound Recovery from Light Bulb Vibrations,” researchers say that by calibrating the fluctuations in air pressure exerted on the surface of an ordinary lightbulb by sound vibrations, it is possible for identity thieves and other spies to “recover speech…passively, externally, and in real time.”

They can do this by concealing themselves within 80 feet of the lightbulb, armed only with a laptop, a microphone, a telescope and something called a remote electro-optical sensor. All of this stuff can be bought relatively cheaply.

This is scary stuff. Obviously, it will immediately change the way that spies and gangsters conduct conversations. Henceforth, underworld denizens will have to avoid saying anything compromising while the lights are on and the windows are open. Casual remarks like “Go ahead and whack Fat Freddy” must be avoided, as anything recorded by a lightbulb can presumably be used in court.

For similar reasons, sotto voce instructions such as “Go ahead and invade Latvia on Sunday, Vladimir’s fine with it” should never be said where a lightbulb can hear it.

That said, the most devastating effect of unchecked “lamphone” surveillance will be felt by the general public. For starters, it illustrates the futility of concocting Byzantine password chains and triple-verification I.D. systems. No matter how hard we try to keep our personal data private, the crooks are always one step ahead of us. They spy on us through our email, our laptop cameras and our personal electronic assistants. And now they’re coming in through the lightbulbs.

Am I suggesting that anyone can steal our PINs and Social Security numbers by hiding in the garden and peering into our homes with a telescope outfitted with a cheapo remote electro-optical sensor? That’s exactly what I’m suggesting.

Now I turn off all the lights and close the blinds whenever I talk to my financial adviser or read out my Visa number over the phone. I never say my security code within listening distance of any lighting unit, not even if it has a lamp shade on it. I don’t give out personal data over the phone unless I make sure to dim the lamps and cover them with an afghan.

The problem is, in the dark I can’t read the tiny print on my Visa card. Sure, I could try using a flashlight. But do you seriously think that a remote electro-optical sensor that can pick up vibrations from a lightbulb would be foiled by a flashlight? Get serious.

How great is the lamphone threat? Just last week, after noticing that someone had stomped all over the shrubbery behind our garden hedge, I found a cheesy-looking cardboard box labeled “AGTX-546 Remote Electro-Optical Sensor.” On the side was a price sticker: “$89.95: While Supplies Last.” Think it can’t happen to you? Think again.

The stuff about using a lightbulb to eavesdrop is not even the most chilling part of the Ben-Gurion University disclosure. The very first paragraph says that it may also be possible to spy on people by studying the sound vibrations emanating from a bag of chips! Honest, you can look it up. The paper didn’t specify whether such espionage was limited to potato chips or also extended to corn chips and pretzels, but I got the message loud and clear.

I’ve told my children: “Don’t order anything over the phone from Yankee Candle or that tapas bar in Colorado Springs unless you make sure to hide the Doritos in the basement.” And Pringles? Sure, they come in an airtight can, but we’ve banished them too. You can’t be too careful.

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