Dark Reading is part of the Informa Tech Division of Informa PLC

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them.Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 8860726.

Vulnerabilities / Threats

8/11/2010
12:00 PM
50%
50%

New Mobile Security Threat: Fingerprint Oil

Oily residue left on touchscreen mobile devices may help an attacker deduce password

Prepare for a new mobile security threat: smudges. Or to be more precise, the oily residue left behind by fingers on your iPhone, Android, BlackBerry, or other touchscreen mobile device may help an attacker deduce your password.

That's the message from researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, who presented a paper at this week's Usenix conference analyzing "Smudge Attacks on Smartphone Touch Screens."

Based on their results, "the practice of entering sensitive information via touchscreens needs careful analysis," said the researchers. "The Android password pattern, in particular, should be strengthened." But they cautioned that any touchscreen device, including ATMs, voting machines, and PIN entry devices in retail stores, could be susceptible to smudge attacks.

Touchscreens, of course, are an increasingly common feature of mobile computing devices. According to Gartner Group, 363 million touchscreen mobile devices will be sold in 2010, an increase of 97% over last year's sales. But are passwords entered via touchscreens secure?

To find out, the researchers studied two different Android smartphones, the HTC G1 and the HTC Nexus1, evaluating different photography techniques for discerning a smudge pattern. With the best setup, they saw a complete smudge pattern two-thirds of the time, and could partially identify one 96% of the time. Furthermore, in ideal conditions -- say, if an attacker had physical possession of the device -- the researchers could oftentimes see finger-stroke directionality too, meaning that "the order of the strokes can be learned, and consequently, the precise patterns can be determined," they said.

While Android 2.2 adds an option for alphanumeric passwords, the team tested the numbers-only password protocol, which uses a virtual nine-digit keypad and imposes certain restrictions on repeat "contact points," as well as swipe patterns. The researchers note that numeric passwords are likely to remain the norm, especially for power users who must continuously "swipe in" to their device.

Given the contact point restrictions, the researchers found that "the password space of the Android password pattern contains 389,112 possible patterns." But an attacker will face a lockout -- typically, 30 seconds in duration -- after inputting an incorrect password. That would make manually entering too many passwords laborious. But by comparing smudge patterns with a dictionary of common patterns, an attacker might significantly reduce the password space. Thankfully, there's a failsafe on Android phones, since after 20 failed password attempts, a user must enter his or her Google username and password to authenticate.

The good news is that for now, even with a smudge attack, an attacker typically wouldn't be able to reduce the password space to 20 or fewer possibilities. But going forward, don't rule out the possibility that enterprising attackers may add on additional techniques to help see through smudges.

Have a comment on this story? Please click "Discuss" below. If you'd like to contact Dark Reading's editors directly, send us a message.

Comment  | 
Print  | 
More Insights
Comments
Newest First  |  Oldest First  |  Threaded View
News
FluBot Malware's Rapid Spread May Soon Hit US Phones
Kelly Sheridan, Staff Editor, Dark Reading,  4/28/2021
Slideshows
7 Modern-Day Cybersecurity Realities
Steve Zurier, Contributing Writer,  4/30/2021
Commentary
How to Secure Employees' Home Wi-Fi Networks
Bert Kashyap, CEO and Co-Founder at SecureW2,  4/28/2021
Register for Dark Reading Newsletters
White Papers
Video
Cartoon Contest
Current Issue
2021 Top Enterprise IT Trends
We've identified the key trends that are poised to impact the IT landscape in 2021. Find out why they're important and how they will affect you today!
Flash Poll
How Enterprises are Developing Secure Applications
How Enterprises are Developing Secure Applications
Recent breaches of third-party apps are driving many organizations to think harder about the security of their off-the-shelf software as they continue to move left in secure software development practices.
Twitter Feed
Dark Reading - Bug Report
Bug Report
Enterprise Vulnerabilities
From DHS/US-CERT's National Vulnerability Database
CVE-2021-24259
PUBLISHED: 2021-05-05
The “Elementor Addon Elements� WordPress Plugin before 1.11.2 has several widgets that are vulnerable to stored Cross-Site Scripting (XSS) by lower-privileged users such as contributors, all via a similar method.
CVE-2021-24260
PUBLISHED: 2021-05-05
The “Livemesh Addons for Elementor� WordPress Plugin before 6.8 has several widgets that are vulnerable to stored Cross-Site Scripting (XSS) by lower-privileged users such as contributors, all via a similar method.
CVE-2021-24261
PUBLISHED: 2021-05-05
The “HT Mega – Absolute Addons for Elementor Page Builder� WordPress Plugin before 1.5.7 has several widgets that are vulnerable to stored Cross-Site Scripting (XSS) by ...
CVE-2021-24262
PUBLISHED: 2021-05-05
The “WooLentor – WooCommerce Elementor Addons + Builder� WordPress Plugin before 1.8.6 has a widget that is vulnerable to stored Cross-Site Scripting (XSS) by lower-priv...
CVE-2021-24263
PUBLISHED: 2021-05-05
The “Elementor Addons – PowerPack Addons for Elementor� WordPress Plugin before 2.3.2 for WordPress has several widgets that are vulnerable to stored Cross-Site Scriptin...