Pushing the limits: acoustic side channels

How far can we go with acoustic snooping on data?

Seven years ago we showed that you could use a phone camera to measure the phone’s motion while typing and use that to recover PINs. Four years ago we showed that you could use interrupt timing to recover text entered using gesture typing. Last year we showed how a gaming app can steal your banking PIN by listening to the vibration of the screen as your finger taps it. In that attack we used the on-phone microphones, as they are conveniently located next to the screen and can hear the reverberations of the screen glass.

This year we wondered whether voice assistants can hear the same taps on a nearby phone as the on-phone microphones could. We knew that voice assistants could do acoustic snooping on nearby physical keyboards, but everyone had assumed that virtual keyboards were so quiet as to be invulnerable.

Almos Zarandy, Ilia Shumailov and I discovered that attacks are indeed possible. In Hey Alexa what did I just type? we show that when sitting up to half a meter away, a voice assistant can still hear the taps you make on your phone, even in presence of noise. Modern voice assistants have two to seven microphones, so they can do directional localisation, just as human ears do, but with greater sensitivity. We assess the risk and show that a lot more work is needed to understand the privacy implications of the always-on microphones that are increasingly infesting our work spaces and our homes.

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