Scientists just proved your phone’s PIN can be cracked using its gyroscope data

forgot android password pin pattern
Simon Hill / Digital Trends
It’s no secret that smartphone PIN codes are not perfect, but new research suggests they might be next to worthless. A team of scientists at Newcastle University in the U.K. was able to guess a user’s phone PIN code with nothing more than data from the device’s sensors.

In a paper published in International Journal of Information security, researchers demonstrated how a phone’s gyroscope — the sensor that tracks the rotation and orientation of your wrist — could be used to guess a four-digit PIN code with a high degree of accuracy. In one test, the team cracked a passcode with 70 percent accuracy. By the fifth attempt, the accuracy had gone up to 100 percent.

It takes a lot of data, to be sure. The Guardian notes users had to type 50 known PINs five times before the researchers’ algorithm learned how they held a phone when typing each particular number. But it highlights the danger of malicious apps that gain access to a device’s sensors without requesting permission.

“Most smartphones, tablets, and other wearables are now equipped with a multitude of sensors,” Dr. Maryam Mehrnezhad, a research fellow in the Newcastle University School of Computing Science and lead author on the paper, said. “But because mobile apps and websites don’t need to ask permission to access most of them, malicious programs can covertly ‘listen in’ on your sensor data.”

The risk extends beyond PIN codes. In total, the team identified 25 different smartphone sensors which could expose compromising user information. Worse still, only a small number — such as the camera and GPS — ask the user’s permission before granting access to that data.

It’s precise enough to track behavior. Using an “orientation” and “motion trace” data, the researchers were able to determine what part of a web page a user was clicking on and what they were typing.

“It’s a bit like doing a jigsaw — the more pieces you put together, the easier it is to see the picture,” Dr. Siamak Shahandashti, a senior research associate in the School of Computing Science and co-author on the study, said.

Mehrenzhad said the team reached out to leading browser providers to alert them of the issue and that Mozilla and Safari have implemented fixes. But she said that researchers are still working with the industry to find a better fix.

“We all clamor for the latest phone with the latest features and better user experience but because there is no uniform way of managing sensors across the industry, they pose a real threat to our personal security,” Mehrenzhad said. “It’s a battle between usability and security.”

Emerging Tech

Awesome Tech You Can’t Buy Yet: Folding canoes and ultra-fast water filters

Check out our roundup of the best new crowdfunding projects and product announcements that hit the web this week. You may not be able to buy this stuff yet, but it sure is fun to gawk!
Gaming

PlayStation Classic hacked in less than a week to play games via USB drive

Hackers have already managed to crack the PlayStation Classic, with programs now available to allow users to play additional original PlayStation games on the system via a USB drive.
Photography

MIT science photographer isn’t an artist, but her work could fill galleries

Felice Frankel is an award-winning photographer, but she doesn't consider herself an artist. As a science photographer, she has been helping researchers better communicate their ideas for nearly three decades with eye-catching imagery.
Emerging Tech

This exotic new material somehow gets thicker when stretched

Scientists at the U.K.’s University of Leeds have discovered a synthetic material which actually gets thicker the more it’s stretched. Here are some of the things it could be used for.
Mobile

5G Coverage

Curious about the many ways 5G will change and enrich your life? Here’s our guide to all things 5G.
Social Media

Instagram could be making a special type of account for influencers

Instagram influencers fall somewhere between a business profile and a typical Instagram, so the company is working on developing a type of account just for creators. The new account type would give creators more access to analytical data.
Mobile

The Galaxy A8s is Samsung's first with a hole-punch camera cutout

Samsung is building exciting, technologically innovative midrange phones, and the latest to be revealed is the new Samsung Galaxy A8s, which may give us an idea of what the new Samsung Galaxy S10 will look like.
Mobile

Looking for flexible and inexpensive phone service? Check out our favorite MVNOs

Looking to switch from a major carrier to something a little more affordable? Luckily, there are a ton of great MVNO options to choose from. Check out our guide to the best MVNOs, from Boost Mobile to Google Fi.
Cars

Best Products of 2018

Our reception desk has so many brown boxes stacked up, it looks like a loading dock. We’re on a first-name basis with the UPS guy. We get new dishwashers more frequently than most people get new shoes. What we’re trying to say is: We…
Outdoors

Puma revives its classic 1986 smart shoe, complete with high-tech heel hump

More marketing stunt than serious effort to dominate the smart shoe space, Puma is about to re-release its classic RS-Computer Shoe. The high-tech footwear from 1986 was a breakthrough at the time, despite its unsightly heel hump.
Smart Home

Uber Eats is testing a system for cheaper meal delivery

You know how Uber Pool offers cheaper trips if riders share a car? Well, Uber Eats is currently testing the same idea for meal delivery, and it could mean cheaper orders for customers.
Mobile

New Apple Watch begins saving lives one week after getting EKG feature

The Apple Watch Series 4 was updated almost a week ago with a new feature that allows users to take electrocardiogram tests -- and already it seems like the new feature is saving lives.
Mobile

The best smartphone stocking stuffers for a very techy Christmas

If you've got a tech-loving smartphone enthusiast to buy for, we can help you out. Here's a selection of top phone accessories that would make amazing stocking stuffers so you can have a very Merry Christmas.
Mobile

OnePlus's 5G phone should arrive in May 2019, may cost up to $850

OnePlus will be among the first companies to put the new Snapdragon 855 processor into a phone, and will also release a separate and more expensive 5G phone in 2019 with the help of U.K. network EE.