Smartphone's Motion Sensor Is Unique; Can ID You
Once relegated to the shadows of the digital underground, hacking has gone mainstream. Hardly a day goes by without the announcement of a major cybersecurity breach, sometimes conducted by groups, such as Anonymous and LulzSec, that are virtually becoming household names. Hacking has become so prevalent that it has even been allegedly used by major news organizations in the United Kingdom for news gathering. This year alone, there have been a number of high-profile attacks on major companies, such as Sony; international organizations, such as NATO; and even entire governments, as was the case most recently with Syria. Although the major players are becoming more familiar, to many, their methods are as opaque as they've always been. In this slideshow, explore some of the techniques used by hackers to exploit and overcome cybersecurity vulnerabilities.
Eavesdropping and Other Passive Attacks With a passive attack, computer systems and networks are monitored in order for a hacker to gain some information. One technique involves eavesdropping, where a hacker listens in on a network. The point isn't to cause damage to the computer system itself, but to harvest information as it's transmitted. This technique is also known as sniffing or snooping. Eavesdropping is not only a concern for computers, but also mobile devices as they become ubiquitous.
Viruses, Worms and Other Active Attacks Active attacks, such as viruses and trojans, are techniques where a hacker manipulates or deletes data to create the desired result. Computer viruses were first seen in the late 1980s just as home computers were growing more popular. As its name suggests, a virus is a piece of code attached to a seemingly innocuous program and passed between computers. Once inside a system, the virus spreads and can bring down a computer. Like a virus, a Trojan horse is simply a computer program. As the name implies, a Trojan horse fools the user into thinking it's another kind of program, and once installed, releases a malicious code. Another cousin of the virus is the computer worm. Worms burrow into network security holes to pass and install malicious code from user to user. One of the most severe cyber-attacks of all time was through the accidental use of a worm by a graduate student in 1988, who was looking to determine the size of the Internet. Software used for a variety of functions from disrupting a system to gaining access to a network is often called malware. Spyware serves to collect information on users and may or may not be malicious. Not all spyware is malware and vice versa. There are also more niche subcategories of malware, such as ransomware, a term used for an attack meant to scare the user into paying what is essentially a form of blackmail, or scareware, a product falsely sold under the premise that it will protect your computer from outside threats.
Denial of Service A denial of service attack is a technique intended to impede normal operations of a website or network. The basic idea is to overrun a computer or server with requests from outside a network to overwhelm the system's available resources. By flooding the intended target with requests, hackers incapacitate the site. These attacks often employ botnets, also known as zombie computers, which are systems that are taken over, sometimes unknowingly though occasionally voluntarily, by a hacker. This technique was most notably employed by the hacking group known as Anonymous against various websites, including Mastercard, Visa, Paypal and others, in the wake of the controversy surrounding the online whistleblower Wikileaks.
Going In The Back Door Earlier this year, hackers shut down Sony's PlayStation Network and stole the personal information, including some credit card data, from nearly 100 millions users. According to a letter by Sony following a Congressional inquiry into the matter, the company asserted that the heist was the result of two groups of hackers: the first launched a denial of service attack while the second stole the data. Before this series of attacks took place, however, Sony itself was accused of slipping malicious code -- a rootkit -- into one of its firmware updates for the PlayStation 3. A rootkit, also known as a back door, is software that gives a hacker access to a computer or network, often without an administrator's knowledge. Gaming security experts, however, dismissed the rumors as false.
Phishing and Sidejacking Behind almost all secure data both online and off is a username and password. If a hacker can gain user information and crack a password, that attacker can access a network and create, modify or delete data maliciously. Different techniques, however, are used to steal a user's password. One of the most popular methods is known as phishing. It starts when a hacker sends an electronic communication to an unsuspecting user under the illusion that the message is from a trusted institution. The user is duped into supplying his information, which may not only include a username and password but also a social security number and bank account information. Another method, known as sidejacking, session IDs, which can be unencrypted data in a URL or cookie, to gain access to an account. Other automated attacks simply guess passwords using predetermined dictionaries and often exploits systems without lockout policies for successive login failures.
Keylogging Keylogging is a technique that could be used for password cracking, but goes a step further. It allows hackers to monitor every stroke of the key entered by a user, which could include other information besides passwords, such as social security numbers, credit card data and much more.
Spoofing With spoofing attacks, hackers pretend to be a user designated to access a particular system or network by mimicking that person's IP address. Once a hacker is inside the system, that attacker can steal or delete data, or access other resources within a particular network.
The accelerometers in smartphones are great things — they change the orientation of the screen and let you play all kinds of cool games. But they’re also big privacy risks. A researcher at Stanford has found that an accelerometer can help identify a smartphone — and its user.
Every accelerometer has defects. Usually the flaws are too small to notice, and they don’t matter to the device’s functioning. Each defect, though, is unique. That means every phone’s accelerometer will generate slightly different numbers when the phone is standing still or when it moves.
Hristo Bojinov, a security researcher at Stanford, found that a relatively simple program running on a website in the device’s mobile browser can measure those defects, and come up with a “fingerprint” for the phone. He discovered the vulnerability while he was looking for ways to identify devices via their sensors, and his results will be published in the coming months.
Bojinov did an experiment where users visited a web site with their mobile devices, so they were willing participants. They were directed by the site to move the phone in a certain way. (You can visit the site at http://sensor-id.com/). The code on the site records the responses of the accelerometers.
In this case the phone owners are working with the researchers, but the same code could be built into a website invisibly. The scary bit is that you wouldn’t ever know your device was “tagged.” Unlike cookies, which can be deleted, or even some kinds of spyware or malware, this kind of identifier is built into the very architecture of the phone. Every time the web browser visits a site, a program on the site can query the accelerometers and match the numbers it gets to a database.
Accelerometers aren’t the only sensors that can work as identifiers. Bojinov also found that the frequency response of the phone’s microphone can work in a similar way. Microphones also respond a tad differently on each device, and by looking at several frequencies it’s possible to identify an individual phone. That process is a bit different and requires that the user download an app, but the principle is similar — small differences in hardware that end up being unique.
The experiment highlights the fact that even taking precautions with what software you put on your smartphone, there are still security holes, and that makes privacy advocates nervous. Law enforcement agencies have already made use of microphones to eavesdrop on suspects. And there are rumors the NSA can even track cell phones when they are turned off.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons