New use for iPhone - a keylogging, spy device

New use for iPhone - a keylogging, spy device

Summary: It's possible to log keystrokes from a computer by using an iPhone 4 to monitor the keyboard's vibrations.

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A team of researchers has discovered a way to log keystrokes from computers simply by placing an iPhone 4 near a user's keyboard and monitoring the keyboard's vibrations.

The team at Georgia Tech used the accelerometer in an iPhone 4 to sense keyboard vibrations and determine what was being typed, without any connectivity to the user's computer or peripherals.

As documented in their paper, (sp)iPhone: Decoding Vibrations From Nearby Keyboards Using Mobile Phone Accelerometers, the researchers could decipher complete sentences with up to 80 percent accuracy, using a dictionary of about 58,000 words.

For more on this story, read iPhone used as a keylogging 'spiPhone' on ZDNet Australia.

Topics: Smartphones, Hardware, iPhone, Mobility, Security

Michael Lee

About Michael Lee

A Sydney, Australia-based journalist, Michael Lee covers a gamut of news in the technology space including information security, state Government initiatives, and local startups.

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26 comments
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  • RE: New use for iPhone - a keylogging, spy device

    "[i]The team at Georgia Tech used the accelerometer in an iPhone 4 to sense keyboard vibrations and determine what was being typed, without any connectivity to the user's computer or peripherals.[/i]"

    Yeah, right!

    One little problem ... change the keyboard and the vibrations will be different. Move the keyboard or the phone even slightly and the vibrations will be different. Someone hits the keys slightly harder or slightly softer and the vibrations will be different. Etc., etc.
    Rick_R
    • RE: New use for iPhone - a keylogging, spy device

      @Rick_R Not really, and this isn't actually new technology either. The only difference is the use of an iPhone.
      Aerowind
    • RE: New use for iPhone - a keylogging, spy device

      @Rick_R

      The key words in the story are "up to" 80% accuracy with a dictionary which presumably maps particular vibrations to keystrokes that would have had to be trained or recorded.

      And yeah, this is not an iPhone story, as any new smartphone could be used.

      Looks like Georgia Tech is looking for funding ;-)
      tonymcs@...
  • RE: New use for iPhone - a keylogging, spy device

    I'd like to see this in action bceaues different keyboards have different vibrations on the table, due to size, type of keys, padding on the feet, etc. There are many factors that will go into this, such as even the material of the table and the distance from the keyboard.
    Jimster480
  • other similar uses?

    A worse issue is what this could mean for ATM's.
    rp518
    • wouldn't you notice an iPhone

      @rp518
      sitting on an ATM?
      William Farrell
    • RE: New use for iPhone - a keylogging, spy device

      @rp518 What does it mean for ATMs? If someone leaves an iPhone sitting on an ATM, the only theft will be the iPhone when someone grabs it and pockets it after they make their deposit or withdrawal.<br><br>Why would someone leave an iPhone to keylog a person's password at an ATM? Even if they were successful in retrieving the password... then what? Now they have a password without the 16-digit card number, without the person's name, without the expiration, without the security code on the back. What good is a password without any of that? They still need the card, do they now pickpocket the person? I doubt we'll see a big uptick in iPhone/keylogging/password/identity theft/pickpocketing-combo-crime in the near future (or ever). <br><br>Thieves sometimes stake out ATMs and use a telescope or binoculars to gain passwords, but they still have to steal the card. Frankly, it would be easier to stick a gun in their ribs and force them to withdraw the money.
      dallasdeckard@...
    • ATM's are vulnerable to infrared, not an iPhone accelerometer

      @rp518 <br><br>So that is REALLY off topic, but I'm responding anyway since the ATM has a security issue that is more relevant to an average joe schmoe than using an iPhone to get keystrokes from vibration... ATM's are already vulnerable from Infrared cameras. Make sure to smear the screen with your hand to warm the whole thing, otherwise your Pin is vulnerable. Or better, don't use ATM's. Google "atm heat hack"
      admiraljkb
      • RE: New use for iPhone - a keylogging, spy device

        @admiraljkb <br>Yes, let's collect all the filth every time you use an ATM :-p

        No seriously, I understand the problem. It was just the first thing that popped my mind: the image of people neurotically wiping ATM's after they used it :-D
        belli_bettens@...
      • RE: New use for iPhone - a keylogging, spy device

        @belli_bettens<br><br>Yeah, I'm not sure what happens if a paranoid germophobe uses an ATM after they're told that. Should be pretty interesting. :) Personally, with all the security issues with ATM's (just with the "usual" skimmers and such), so just get my cash from my bank teller directly. I've had my credit cards skimmed from what should have been reputable gas stations, so I'm not about to get a ATM or debit card with direct access to my bank acct anymore.
        admiraljkb
      • RE: New use for iPhone - a keylogging, spy device

        @admiraljkb
        not sure I really understand how wiping the screen has any affect on an ATM machine, the number keys are made out of plastic
        aiellenon
  • RE: New use for iPhone - a keylogging, spy device

    The obvious response is simply to take any iPhone left lying near a keyboard and drop it in a fish tank or toilet. Won't work very well from there.
    GKSeifert
    • RE: New use for iPhone - a keylogging, spy device

      @GKSeifert

      Wish there was an icon for thumbs up. <chuckle>
      PollyProteus
    • RE: New use for iPhone - a keylogging, spy device

      @GKSeifert
      I'll do this from now on :-D solves many problems at once :-p
      belli_bettens@...
  • Amazing how corrupt we all are.

    Its not just iPhone, my E7 has a highly sensitive set of sensors just the same as a lot of the current crop of smartphones.

    All the high-end Nokias have Python, with native support for the devices in them - namely accelerometer/gyros and lately, *really* sensitive magnetometers. These are used for GPS and compass by the OS, but Nokia have also opened up a path for people to use them for anything they like with a few simple commands. I've been using mine to detect signals in cables, and apps to turn a Nokia into a Plumbline or a level are commonplace as well.

    They gave us position-sensing, we came up with the Lightsabre app. Give us more sensitive and capable hardware, and we just get sneaky...
    Video cameras are fun, and pretty harmless if used responsibly. But we also have cameras built into pens and the frames of glasses, and its pretty hard to find a responsible use for those in my opinion.

    I find it interesting that, as we are descending (allegedly) into an amoral mess and devoid of personal conscience, we are also gaining a digital conscience:
    Its getting to the stage where you cant be sure someone isnt right over your shoulder, and behave (somewhat paranoically perhaps) as if someone were... Unless you are one of those lunatics who carelessly post every minutiae possible onto Facebook in any case.

    What a world we live in!
    SiO2
  • RE: New use for iPhone - a keylogging, spy device

    So now we have iSpy on top of iFake and iRipoff... ;-)
    Johan Safari
  • Bye ZDNET

    You deleted your last legitimate post and lost yet another reader. The rate you're going, the collective IQ of your readership will soon be in SINGLE FIGURES...
    SiO2
  • Not just an iPhone

    Other smartphones can just as easily be used.

    Most decent phones these days have built-in gyro/accelerometers and lately magnetometers sensitive enough to discriminate the planet's polar field from surrounding local fields.

    All of Nokia's high-end phones also have Python, with modules to access these devices from code, and I have used my E7 to detect signals in a cable a few inches from the phone simply by reading the intensity of the field surrounding it - no connection necessary.
    SiO2
    • RE: New use for iPhone - a keylogging, spy device

      @SiO2

      iPhone is probably the worst phone to use, since it isn't open, so you have to use more R&D time to achieve the same result... (although if you are getting research grants, maybe that is the point in order to get more money) Older Nokia and then Android phones are all better suited since you can interface at a lower level when doing spygear.

      Personally, I don't see how this would work. Each keyboard has a different acoustic signature, which would change the vibrations going through the table. It would seem to be better to replace their keyboard with one logging keystrokes, with a Bluetooth transceiver, which is then sending them to a phone/device a desk or two away where it isn't obvious. Much easier to do...
      admiraljkb
  • Old News...

    In the 80's it was shown that each key makes a unique sound (not by design) and that by recording the sounds of the keystrokes you could determine what was being typed. Of course you needed a baseline, but once you had that you could call someone and record the conversation and know what they were typing. Nothing new here.
    JD_Technologist