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Being discreet won't help: Hackers can intercept smartphone sound and detect what you type

NEW YORK: Using just a smartphone, hackers can access what is being typed with remarkable accuracy and access your personal information.

According to researchers from Dallas-based Southern Methodist University (SMU), it's possible to access your information in a subtler way: by using a nearby smartphone to intercept the sound of your typing.

The team from SMU's Darwin Deason Institute for Cybersecurity found that acoustic signals, or sound waves, produced when you type on a computer keyboard can be successfully picked up by a smartphone.

The sounds intercepted by the phone can then be processed, allowing a skilled hacker to decipher which keys were struck and what they were typing.

Researchers were able to decode much of what was typed using common keyboards and smartphones – even in a noisy conference room filled with other people's typing sounds and having conversations.

"We were able to pick up what people were typing at a 41 per cent word accuracy rate. And we can extend that out – above 41 per cent – if we look at, say, the top 10 words of what we think it might be. , "said Eric C. Larson, assistant professor at SMU Lyle School's Department of Computer Science.

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It might take just a couple of seconds to get information on what you're typing, noted lead author Mitch Thornton, professor of electrical and computer engineering, in a paper published in the journal Interactive, Mobile, Wearable and Ubiquitous Technologies.

"Based on what we found, I think smartphone makers are going to have to go back to the drawing board and make sure they're enhancing the privacy with which people have access to these sensors in a smartphone," Larson noted.

There are many types of sensors in smartphones that cause the phone to know its orientation and detect when it is still sitting on a table or being carried in someone's pocket.

"Some sensors require the user to allow them to turn on, but many are always turned on," Thornton explained.

"We used sensors that are always turned on, so all we had to do was develop a new app that processed the sensor output to predict the key that was pressed by a typist."

There are some caveats, though. "An attacker would need to know the material of the table type," Larson said, because different tables create different sound waves when you type. For instance, a wooden table like the one used in this study sounds different than someone typing on a metal tabletop.

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