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    Georgia Tech Turns iPhone into SpiPhone

    Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology have discovered a security vulnerability in some iPhones that could affect users’ privacy:

    It’s a pattern that no doubt repeats itself daily in hundreds of millions of offices around the world: People sit down, turn on their computers, set their mobile phones on their desks and begin to work. What if a hacker could use that phone to track what the person was typing on the keyboard just inches away?

    A research team at Georgia Tech has discovered how to do exactly that, using a smartphone accelerometer—the internal device that detects when and how the phone is tilted—to sense keyboard vibrations and decipher complete sentences with up to 80 percent accuracy. The procedure is not easy, they say, but is definitely possible with the latest generations of smartphones. […]

    Previously, [said Patrick Traynor, assistant professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Computer Science], researchers have accomplished similar results using microphones, but a microphone is a much more sensitive instrument than an accelerometer. A typical smartphone’s microphone samples vibration roughly 44,000 times per second, while even newer phones’ accelerometers sample just 100 times per second—two full orders of magnitude less often. Plus, manufacturers have installed security around a phone’s microphone; the phone’s operating system is programmed to ask users whether to give new applications access to most built-in sensors, including the microphone. Accelerometers typically are not protected in this way. […]

    “The way we see this attack working is that you, the phone’s owner, would request or be asked to download an innocuous-looking application, which doesn’t ask you for the use of any suspicious phone sensors,” said Henry Carter, a PhD student in computer science and one of the study’s co-authors. “Then the keyboard-detection malware is turned on, and the next time you place your phone next to the keyboard and start typing, it starts listening.”

    Mitigation strategies for this vulnerability are pretty simple and straightforward, Traynor said. First, since the study found an effective range of just three inches from a keyboard, phone users can simply leave their phones in their purses or pockets, or just move them further away from the keyboard. But a fix that puts less onus on users is to add a layer of security for phone accelerometers. […]

    The finding is reported in the paper, “(sp)iPhone: Decoding Vibrations From Nearby Keyboards Using Mobile Phone Accelerometers,” and will be presented Thursday, Oct. 20, at the 18th ACM Conference on Computer and Communications Security in Chicago. In addition to Carter, Traynor’s coauthors include Georgia Tech graduate student Arunabh Verma and Philip Marquardt of the MIT Lincoln Laboratory.

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