Looking over a nearby person's shoulder is a common technique used to steal a PIN code for a device that is targeted for imminent theft. But as reported by Wired, a research team from the University of Massachusetts Lowell has taken this shoulder surfing trick to a whole new level by increasing the working distance and automating the process using Google Glass and other similar camera-equipped, mobile products.

The UMass Lowell researchers improved passcode theft by analyzing video captured from wearable and mobile devices such as Google Glass, the Samsung Gear smartwatch and the iPhone. The system anlyzes the incoming video using a custom video recognition algorithm that detects the shadows from finger taps and uses that information to predict PINs codes. Unlike the standard over-the-shoulder method that requires a direct view of the target device's display, the UMass method also can be employed at an indirect angle, allowing someone to steal a password while standing at your side.

google-glass-pin-spying

UMass researchers capturing PIN codes using Google Glass
(Image from Cyber Forensics Laboratory at University of Massachusetts Lowell)

The system is surprisingly accurate -- allowing a malicious user to capture PIN codes inconspicuously with at least 83 percent accuracy from a distance as far as three meters. This accuracy was improved to more than 90 percent when a sharper camera such as the iPhone was used or manual error correction by the researchers was added to the video analysis.

“I think of this as a kind of alert about Google Glass, smartwatches, all these devices,” says Xinwen Fu, a computer science professor at UMass Lowell who plans to present the findings with his students at the Black Hat security conference in August. “If someone can take a video of you typing on the screen, you lose everything.”

The researchers didn't test longer passwords, but believe they could reach an accuracy rate of 78 percent when stealing an 8-digit password from a device such as the iPad. If you are concerned about password hacking, your best line of defense is to cover your display as you type or when possible do away with a PIN code entirely such as by using the Touch ID fingerprint in the iPhone 5s.

With the results of this study, the researchers hope to convince mobile operating system companies to improve the security of their PIN input screens by taking steps such as randomizing the layout of the keypad.

Apple's Touch ID fingerprint authentication is of course another alternative to traditional passcodes. The feature launched on the iPhone 5s last year and is expected to make its way to the iPad and iPad mini later this year. Aside from increased security compared to passcodes, Touch ID has also increased usage of security features, with Apple noting during its WWDC presentation earlier this month that passcode/Touch ID usage has risen to 83% on the iPhone 5s, up from just 49% passcode usage previously.

Top Rated Comments

Bearxor Avatar
103 months ago
Randomizing the layout of the keypad for PIN entry is a great idea.
Score: 17 Votes (Like | Disagree)
2010mini Avatar
103 months ago
Couldn't these researchers be doing something more worthwhile with their time? I can't see any value in them proving that they can do this kind of thing other than highlighting the possibility of this to would be thieves.

At least Apple is a step ahead of these people with Touch ID.

Highlighting security flaws is always a good thing. It helps manufactures and consumers be more aware.
Score: 12 Votes (Like | Disagree)
kwokaaron Avatar
103 months ago
Lesson learnt: Keep your friends close, but your devices closer. :D
Score: 8 Votes (Like | Disagree)
macduke Avatar
103 months ago
Randomizing the layout of the keypad for PIN entry is a great idea.

Great in theory, terrible in practice. Many people can type their passcode without even looking, or at the least very quickly because they know the sequence. If you increase the complexity, more people will opt to not use a passcode at all.

For a pure touch-based visual input method, using a gesture would probably be the hardest to for a machine to decipher from more extreme angles and distances. Otherwise Touch ID is the best choice.

I love it when Apple solves problems before they are even problems.
Score: 5 Votes (Like | Disagree)
AngerDanger Avatar
103 months ago
Google presents the thief of tomorrow! And boy is he ever angsty about his social ineptitude…

Score: 5 Votes (Like | Disagree)
BenTrovato Avatar
103 months ago
Wait until Google Glass gets a little fancier.. they'll be stealing a lot more than Passwords.

Inventing something like Touch ID is mandatory unfortunately (or fortunately). Once they develop algorithms they'll be able track people. If you walk to work everyday, G Glass can pick out what people do. For example, if G Glass picks out a man who always stops at Starbucks at 850am. You know he's not home at that time. You know he's about to make a transaction. He may be on social media at that time. Lots of data, becomes a target for theft.

When normal people have access to AI algorithms, how we operate in the world will have to change. Touch ID is only the beginning.
Score: 4 Votes (Like | Disagree)

Popular Stories

iPhone 14 Purple Lineup Feature

Will the iPhone 14 Be a Disappointment?

Saturday May 21, 2022 9:00 am PDT by
With around four months to go before Apple is expected to unveil the iPhone 14 lineup, the overwhelming majority of rumors related to the new devices so far have focused on the iPhone 14 Pro, rather than the standard iPhone 14 – leading to questions about how different the iPhone 14 will actually be from its predecessor, the iPhone 13. The iPhone 14 Pro and iPhone 14 Pro Max are expected...
apple ar headset concept 1

Apple's Headset Said to Feature 14 Cameras Enabling Lifelike Avatars, Jony Ive Has Remained Involved With Design

Friday May 20, 2022 6:50 am PDT by
Earlier this week, The Information's Wayne Ma outlined struggles that Apple has faced during the development of its long-rumored AR/VR headset. Now, in a follow-up report, he has shared several additional details about the wearable device. Apple headset render created by Ian Zelbo based on The Information reporting For starters, one of the headset's marquee features is said to be lifelike...
sony headphones 1

Sony's New WH-1000XM5 Headphones vs. Apple's AirPods Max

Friday May 20, 2022 12:18 pm PDT by
Sony this week came out with an updated version of its popular over-ear noise canceling headphones, so we picked up a pair to compare them to the AirPods Max to see which headphones are better and whether it's worth buying the $400 WH-1000XM5 from Sony over Apple's $549 AirPods Max. Subscribe to the MacRumors YouTube channel for more videos. First of all, the AirPods Max win out when it comes ...
apple music

Apple Increases Apple Music Subscription Price for Students in Several Countries

Sunday May 22, 2022 1:57 am PDT by
Apple has silently increased the price of its Apple Music subscription for college students in several countries, with the company emailing students informing them their subscription would be slightly increasing in price moving forward. The price change is not widespread and, based on MacRumors' findings, will impact Apple Music student subscribers in but not limited to Australia, the...
iPhone 13 Face ID

'High-End' iPhone 14 Front-Facing Camera to Cost Apple Three Times More

Monday May 23, 2022 7:05 am PDT by
The iPhone 14 will feature a more expensive "high-end" front-facing camera with autofocus, partly made in South Korea for the first time, ET News reports. Apple reportedly ousted a Chinese candidate to choose LG Innotek, a South Korean company, to supply the iPhone 14's front-facing camera alongside Japan's Sharp. The company is said to have originally planned to switch to LG for the iPhone...