Study finds hackers could use brainwaves to steal passwords

June 29, 2017 by Tiffany Westry Womack
Credit: University of Alabama at Birmingham

Researchers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham suggest that brainwave-sensing headsets, also known as EEG or electroencephalograph headsets, need better security after a study reveals hackers could guess a user's passwords by monitoring their brainwaves.

EEG headsets are advertised as allowing users to use only their brains to control robotic toys and video games specifically developed to be played with an EEG . There are only a handful on the market, and they range in price from $150 to $800.

Nitesh Saxena, Ph.D., associate professor in the UAB College of Arts and Sciences Department of Computer and Information Sciences, and Ph.D. student Ajaya Neupane and former master's student Md Lutfor Rahman, found that a person who paused a video game and logged into a bank account while wearing an EEG headset was at risk for having their passwords or other sensitive data stolen by a malicious software program.

"These emerging devices open immense opportunities for everyday users," Saxena said. "However, they could also raise significant security and privacy threats as companies work to develop even more advanced technology."

Saxena and his team used one EEG headset currently available to consumers online and one clinical-grade headset used for to demonstrate how easily a malicious software program could passively eavesdrop on a user's brainwaves. While typing, a user's inputs correspond with their visual processing, as well as hand, eye and head muscle movements. All these movements are captured by EEG headsets. The team asked 12 people to type a series of randomly generated PINs and passwords into a text box as if they were logging into an online account while wearing an EEG headset, in order for the software to train itself on the user's typing and the corresponding brainwave.

"In a real-world attack, a hacker could facilitate the training step required for the malicious program to be most accurate, by requesting that the user enter a predefined set of numbers in order to restart the game after pausing it to take a break, similar to the way CAPTCHA is used to verify users when logging onto websites," Saxena said.

The team found that, after a user entered 200 characters, algorithms within the malicious software program could make educated guesses about new characters the user entered by monitoring the EEG data recorded. The algorithm was able to shorten the odds of a hacker's guessing a four-digit numerical PIN from one in 10,000 to one in 20 and increased the chance of guessing a six-letter password from about 500,000 to roughly one in 500.

EEG has been used in the medical field for more than half a century as a noninvasive method for recording electrical activity in the brain. Electrodes are placed on the surface of the scalp to detect brain waves. An EEG machine then amplifies the signals and records them in a wave pattern on graph paper or a computer. EEG can be combined with a brain-computer interface to allow a person to control external devices. This technology was once highly expensive and used mostly for scientific research, like the production of neuroprosthetic applications to help disabled patients control prosthetic limbs by thinking about the movements. However, it is now being marketed to consumers in the form of a wireless headset and is becoming popular in the gaming and entertainment industries.

"Given the growing popularity of EEG headsets and the variety of ways in which they could be used, it is inevitable that they will become part of our daily lives, including while using other devices," Saxena said. "It is important to analyze the potential security and privacy risks associated with this emerging technology to raise users' awareness of the risks and develop viable solutions to malicious attacks."

One potential solution proposed by Saxena and his team is the insertion of noise anytime a user types a password or PIN while wearing an EEG headset.

Explore further: Study looks at how brainwaves can be used to nab passwords

Related Stories

Recommended for you

A not-quite-random walk demystifies the algorithm

December 15, 2017

The algorithm is having a cultural moment. Originally a math and computer science term, algorithms are now used to account for everything from military drone strikes and financial market forecasts to Google search results.

US faces moment of truth on 'net neutrality'

December 14, 2017

The acrimonious battle over "net neutrality" in America comes to a head Thursday with a US agency set to vote to roll back rules enacted two years earlier aimed at preventing a "two-speed" internet.

FCC votes along party lines to end 'net neutrality' (Update)

December 14, 2017

The Federal Communications Commission repealed the Obama-era "net neutrality" rules Thursday, giving internet service providers like Verizon, Comcast and AT&T a free hand to slow or block websites and apps as they see fit ...

The wet road to fast and stable batteries

December 14, 2017

An international team of scientists—including several researchers from the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory—has discovered an anode battery material with superfast charging and stable operation ...

2 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

ulao
Jun 29, 2017
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
Whydening Gyre
not rated yet Jun 30, 2017
Betcha these guys have a device or software that can defeat it.
Soon to be available on the market....

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.