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Wearable cams can record your PIN from 40 paces

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Google Glass wearers can snoop on passcodes and other sensitive information with only a passing glance, according to a proof-of-concept demo by security researchers.

Researchers from the University of Massachusetts Lowell were able to use video streams from wearables like Google Glass and the Samsung smartwatch to capture four-digit PIN codes typed onto an iPad from around three metres away.

Video recognition software developed by the team was capable of identifying passcodes most of the time, even when the screen is unreadable because of glare or similar problems. An understanding of an iPad’s geometry means that simply knowing the position of a user’s fingers is enough for the snooping technology to work, Wired reports.

The UMass researchers tested a variety of video-enabled devices including Google Glass, an iPhone 5 camera and a Logitech webcam. Glass was capable of identifying four-digit PINs from three metres away with 83 per cent accuracy, or even better with manual correction. Webcam video was even better, proving effective 92 per cent of the time and the iPhone’s sharper camera fared better still, producing correct results almost all of the time. The camera on the Samsung smartwatch was roughly on par with the Google Glass camera.

The performance of the technology largely depended on the quality of the video input. The researchers were able to capture the PIN typed on a glare-obscured screen from more than 40 meters away using a Panasonic camcorder’s optical zoom, the Daily Mail reports.

The UMass team, led by Dr. Xinwen Fu, an associate professor, is due to present findings from its research during the Black Hat security conference in Las Vegas in August.

The research is really about the security shortcomings of the passcodes entered into tablets and smartphones and, by extension, PINs entered into ATMs or point-of-sale terminals rather than the new and scary snooping potential created by Google's hi-tech specs and comparable consumer tech.

In a statement, Google said the risk highlighted by the academics was nothing new. Representatives of the search engine giant contended that its hi-tech glasses were ill-suited to serve as a spying device.

Unfortunately, stealing passwords by watching people as they type them into ATMs and laptops is nothing new. We designed Glass with privacy in mind. The fact that Glass is worn above the eyes and the screen lights up whenever it's activated clearly signals it's in use and makes it a fairly lousy surveillance device.

Brian Honan, an independent security consultant who serves as a special advisor on internet security to Europol, told El Reg that the issue is nothing new nor particular to Google Glass.

"Devices that can capture images such as camera, mobile phones, PCs, etc. have always posed a threat to sensitive information," Honan explained. "Anyone with a device with these capabilities can record sensitive data or capture other information such as PINs or passwords."

"People should always be aware of their environment when entering passwords or PIN numbers to ensure they are not overlooked. Even when there is no-one around you should assume that someone could observe what you are doing by cameras with zoom lens, Google Glass, hidden cameras, or indeed CCTV cameras," he added.

Honan said that the risk of snooping in general meant consumers would be well advised to always cover a PIN pad when typing in their PIN, especially at a cash till in shops. ®

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