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Smart watches vulnerable to hackers, say university researchers

Steve Rogerson
September 16, 2015:
Smart watches are vulnerable to hackers, say researchers at the University of Illinois.
Using a homegrown app on a Samsung Gear Live smart watch, the researchers were able to guess what a user was typing through data leaks produced by the motion sensors on smart watches. The project has privacy implications, as an app that is camouflaged as a pedometer, for example, could gather data from emails, search queries and other confidential documents.
The work, funded by the National Science Foundation, was presented at last week’s MobiCom conference in Paris, France.
"Sensor data from wearable devices will clearly be a double-edged sword,” said Romit Roy Choudhury, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at Illinois. “While the device's contact to the human body will offer invaluable insights into human health and context, it will also make way for deeper violation into human privacy. The core challenge is in characterising what can or cannot be inferred from sensor data and this project is one example along this direction.”
The app uses an accelerometer and gyroscope to track the micro-motion of keystrokes as a wearer types on a keyboard. After collecting the sensor data, researchers ran it through a keystroke detection module, which analysed the timing of each keystroke and the net 2D displacement of the watch. For example, the left wrist moves farther to type a T than an F.
It is conceivable, say the researchers, that hackers could build a similar app and deploy it to iTunes and other libraries.
Choudhury’s team said the rapid proliferation of wearable devices made them ask just how secure is the data. They approached this topic from the perspective of an attacker. Rather than directly developing security measures for smart watches, they aimed to discern ways that attackers can decipher users’ information.
“There are a lot of good things that smart watches can bring to our lives, but there could be bad things,” said He Wang, a PhD student in electrical and computer engineering at the University of Illinois. “So if you think from that perspective – if there are any bad things we could do – we can help other people protect their privacy, or at least make them realise there’s a potential problem.”
A possible way to stop these motion leaks would be to lower the sample rate of the sensors in the watch, Wang said. For instance, the sample rate is normally around 200Hz, meaning the system logs 200 accelerometer and gyroscope readings per second. However, if that number is lowered to below 15, the users’ wrist movements become extremely difficult to track.
While their work has yielded results so far, there is still a long way to go in polishing the data-collection process. The team’s current system can’t detect special characters such as numbers, punctuation and symbols that might appear in passwords. The space bar or key also poses an obstacle. In addition, researchers can only collect data from the hand wearing the watch and from people who have standard typing patterns.
“There’s a subset of people who don’t type like that,” said Ted Tsung-Te Lai, a post-doctorate researcher at the university, who said the team would develop more models to account for typing differences in the future.
While a Samsung watch was used in this project, the researchers believe that any wearable device that uses motion sensors – from the Apple Watch to Fitbit – could be vulnerable as well.
Lai said, “We would just like to advise people who use the watch to enjoy it, but know that hey, there’s a threat.”