A pair of headphones plugged into a personal computer can be used by anti-social elements to spy on the users, according to research conducted by Israel’s Ben Gurion University. Technically, the research group hacked the PC and not the headphones, however, says Engadget.
Headphones turned into spy devices
It is no surprise that headphones can be used as microphones, and there are videos that can guide tech-savvy people in how to do it. The speakers in headphones transform electromagnetic signals into sound waves through a membrane’s vibrations. They can also be used in reverse to catch sound vibrations and convert them into electromagnetic vibrations, notes Wired.
Researchers designed a piece of malware that exploits the audio-jack by retasking the functions of RealTek codecs, a common audio technology that comes with most personal computers. Thereafter, the computer which has been hacked can easily be remotely configured to swap the headphones jack for the microphone jack to potentially turn any set of headphones into a microphone that can also be used as an eavesdropping device.
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The researchers named their software as “Speake(a)r.” Their intention was only to test the theory. However, they are certain that the threat presented is quite real. The researchers found that the audio captured by this method is also quite good. By using Sennheiser headphones to record, the researchers were able to understand conversations from up to 20 feet away.
Mordechai Guri, the research lead, told Wired, “People don’t think about this privacy vulnerability. Even if you remove your computer’s microphone, if you use headphones you can be recorded.”
Better to be safe than sorry
Guri stated that so far his team has worked on finding out how vulnerable RealTek chips are, but they have yet to determine which other devices are vulnerable to such an attack. It is possible that the experiment holds true for tablets, smartphones, and other devices with audio jacks. He also stated that this is not an accidental technical glitch in any one chip, but a feature that could be problematic.
Additionally, there is no proof that such malware exists out in the open, but it would be better to take precautions. Guri referred to one photo of Mark Zuckerberg in which he had put tape over his laptop’s microphone. Also Vice Video showed Edward Snowden demonstrating how to remove the internal mic from a smartphone.
Further, the NSA’s information assurance division also suggests “hardening” PCs by immobilizing their microphones. In July, Kyle Wiens of repair-oriented site iFixit’s demonstrated how to physically disable a MacBook‘s mic.