Zuckerberg was right: Hacking earphones just got easier

23 Nov 2016

Earphones. Image: Faraz Hyder Jafri/Shutterstock

A new piece of research into hacking earphones on computers has provided a novel way to spy on people. Just ‘retask’ the audio channels.

A move to retask Realtek audio codec chips, changing a computer’s output channel to an input channel, has been revealed as a relatively simple way to turn earphones into microphones.

The significance of this is largely down to the ease with which it is achieved, allowing hackers to record the computer activity anywhere in the world.

Hacking audio ports is nothing new, but often they need to be free, or at least have something plugged in that has a Microsoft channel.

Thanks to a discovery by researchers at Israel’s Ben-Gurion University, that’s no longer an issue.

“People don’t think about this privacy vulnerability,” said Mordechai Guri, research lead of Ben-Gurion’s cybersecurity research labs, speaking to Wired. “Even if you remove your computer’s microphone, if you use headphones, you can be recorded.”

Realtek chips are incredibly common, featuring in more laptops, across various operating systems, and in many homes.

“This is the real vulnerability,” said Guri. “It’s what makes almost every computer today vulnerable to this type of attack.”

This may twig something Facebook-related in readers’ memories. Last June, Mark Zuckerberg posted a celebratory image of himself at his desk, following his Instagram account reaching a landmark 500m users.

Eagle-eyed internet users noticed that his MacBook had both the webcam and microphone covered by tape.

Zuckerberg knew the score. Everybody should.

“It is possible to manipulate the headphones (or earphones) connected to a computer, silently turning them into a pair of eavesdropping microphones ­– with software alone,” reads the team’s paper. “The same is also true for some types of loudspeakers.”

The researchers’ software, called ‘Speake(a)r’, was only used to test (and prove) a theory – though the threat is obvious.

So if you’re worried about hackers spying on you, even when you’re just in the same room as your laptop, or tablet, phone etc, perhaps unplugging your earphones is a good place to start. Taping over your ports and cameras could help, too.

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic