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The Network and Distributed System Security Symposium 2017

Researchers discover critical Android pattern lock vulnerability

At Tech Orchard, we’ve spoken with clients and written about the importance of taking precautionary security measures to protect mobile devices. For most users, the first step is setting a password to lock their smartphone or tablet. PINs and thumbprints are options available on devices from various manufacturers, while pattern lock is widely used as a mechanism for authentication and authorization on Android devices. Unfortunately for pattern lock users, this security method may be anything but secure.

Researchers from Lancaster University in the United Kingdom presented findings at The Network and Distributed System Security Symposium 2017 of a study indicating that video and computer vision algorithm software can typically crack a pattern lock in fewer than five attempts. What’s worse, it can do so without even seeing the screen itself. Tests of video-based attacks were successful in reconstructing Android lock patterns from video footage filmed using a mobile phone camera 95% of the time, and 97.5% of the time when more complex patterns were used.

Using footage of a user inputting his or her Android pattern lock, computer vision algorithm then analyzed the fingertip movements to infer a pattern. Researchers tested 120 patterns collected from 215 users and found that more complex patterns are even more vulnerable because they limit the number of working possibilities. A Phys.org article detailing the research indicated that mobile video can produce accurate results from up to 2.5 meters (or just over 8 feet) away, or up to 9 meters (nearly 30 feet) away using SLR footage. Though researchers only discussed these two types of video, the application for security camera footage could indicate the potential for more serious, widespread threats in the future.

The research paper suggests that users consider covering their hands when entering their pattern lock to avoid making their fingertip patterns traceable, or to set the screen brightness to change quickly to throw off any recording.

“Since our threat model is common in day-to-day life, this paper calls for the community to revisit the risks of using Android pattern lock to protect sensitive information,” researchers stated.

Ultimately, Android users may want to consider an alternative form of device lock, or implement two-factor authentication to better protect themselves from potential adversaries. Businesses leveraging enterprise mobility may want to keep these recommendations in mind when developing policies and procedures for employees who are using mobile devices as part of their jobs. If you need help identifying ways to keep your organization’s devices safe regardless of operating system or device type, contact our team for help.

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