from the whose-side-are-you-on? dept
It's become something of a cliché that anyone with a mobile phone is carrying a tracking device that provides detailed information about their location. But things are moving on, as researchers (and probably others as well) explore new ways to subvert increasingly-common smartphones to gain other revealing data about their users. Here's a rather clever use of malware to turn your smartphone into a system for taking clandestine photos -- something we've seen before, of course, in other contexts -- but which then goes even further by stitching them together to form a pretty accurate 3D model of your world:
This paper introduces a novel visual malware called PlaceRaider, which allows remote attackers to engage in remote reconnaissance and what we call virtual theft. Through completely opportunistic use of the camera on the phone and other sensors, PlaceRaider constructs rich, three dimensional models of indoor environments.
The use of 3D reconstructions overcomes a potential problem with ordinary spyware: there's often too much data whose significance is unclear. That makes finding anything interesting hard. The solution here is to combine all the data into a unified, virtual reconstruction that can then be navigated by snoopers looking for significant items just as they might if they were rooting through your physical space.
The full academic paper "PlaceRaider: Virtual Theft in Physical Spaces with Smartphones" (pdf) makes for fascinating reading, even if it doesn't seem to understand the difference between "theft" and "surveillance". It includes the following rather fanciful description of how this 3D-spying capability might be used. It's rather over the top, but it gives an idea of what's theoretically possible:
Alice does not know that her Android phone is running a service, PlaceRaider, that records photos surreptitiously, along with orientation and acceleration sensor data. After on-board analysis, her phone parses the collected images and extracts those that seem to contain valuable information about her environment. At opportune moments, her phone discretely transmits a package of images
to a remote PlaceRaider command and control server.
Well, maybe not. But what's more interesting is the way that smartphone malware is able to gather enough information to allow the detailed reconstruction of complex spaces. The paper includes some impressive 3D reconstructions from apparently random images that have been stitched together. These and the research project that produced them are a salutary reminder that useful as they are, smartphones also bring with them new dangers that need to be considered and, ultimately, addressed.
Upon receiving Alice's images, the PlaceRaider command and control server runs a computer vision algorithm to generate a rich 3D model. This model allows Mallory, the remote attacker, to immerse herself easily in Alice's environment. The fidelity of the model allows Mallory to see Alice's calendar, items on her desk surface and the layout of the room. Knowing that the desktop surface might yield valuable information, Mallory zooms into the images that generated the desktop and quickly finds a check that yields Alice's account and routing numbers along with her identity and home address. This provides immediate value. She also sees the wall calendar, noticing the dates that the family will be out of town, and ponders asking an associate who lives nearby to 'visit' the house while the family is away and 'borrow'; the iMac that Mallory sees in Alice's office.