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

Touchscreen Smudges Pose Security Risk

Residual fingerprint oils on smartphones, ATMs, and other devices may reveal passwords and other confidential data, find security researchers.




Slideshow: Cloud Security Pros And Cons
(click for larger image and for full photo gallery)
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.

Comment  | 
Print  | 
More Insights
Comments
Newest First  |  Oldest First  |  Threaded View
Data Leak Week: Billions of Sensitive Files Exposed Online
Kelly Jackson Higgins, Executive Editor at Dark Reading,  12/10/2019
Lessons from the NSA: Know Your Assets
Robert Lemos, Contributing Writer,  12/12/2019
4 Tips to Run Fast in the Face of Digital Transformation
Shane Buckley, President & Chief Operating Officer, Gigamon,  12/9/2019
Register for Dark Reading Newsletters
White Papers
Video
Cartoon
Current Issue
The Year in Security: 2019
This Tech Digest provides a wrap up and overview of the year's top cybersecurity news stories. It was a year of new twists on old threats, with fears of another WannaCry-type worm and of a possible botnet army of Wi-Fi routers. But 2019 also underscored the risk of firmware and trusted security tools harboring dangerous holes that cybercriminals and nation-state hackers could readily abuse. Read more.
Flash Poll
Rethinking Enterprise Data Defense
Rethinking Enterprise Data Defense
Frustrated with recurring intrusions and breaches, cybersecurity professionals are questioning some of the industrys conventional wisdom. Heres a look at what theyre thinking about.
Twitter Feed
Dark Reading - Bug Report
Bug Report
Enterprise Vulnerabilities
From DHS/US-CERT's National Vulnerability Database
CVE-2019-19807
PUBLISHED: 2019-12-15
In the Linux kernel before 5.3.11, sound/core/timer.c has a use-after-free caused by erroneous code refactoring, aka CID-e7af6307a8a5. This is related to snd_timer_open and snd_timer_close_locked. The timeri variable was originally intended to be for a newly created timer instance, but was used for ...
CVE-2014-8650
PUBLISHED: 2019-12-15
python-requests-Kerberos through 0.5 does not handle mutual authentication
CVE-2014-3536
PUBLISHED: 2019-12-15
CFME (CloudForms Management Engine) 5: RHN account information is logged to top_output.log during registration
CVE-2014-3643
PUBLISHED: 2019-12-15
jersey: XXE via parameter entities not disabled by the jersey SAX parser
CVE-2014-3652
PUBLISHED: 2019-12-15
JBoss KeyCloak: Open redirect vulnerability via failure to validate the redirect URL.