Advances in technology are often celebrated as they make our lives easier. But sometimes advances in technology can be used for evil.
An industrious spaceship engineer named Mark Rober figured out how thieves could steal your PIN code by using inexpensive thermal imaging technology. With an iPhone case thieves could capture the heat registered on a keypad after someone entered their PIN code. The thermal image can show not only which keys were touched but also the order in which they were touched.
Thermal imaging cameras have been around for a while, but used to cost thousands of dollars. Recently a company called FLIR System started selling a thermal imaging camera embedded in a case for the iPhone 5s and 5. FLIR’s thermal imaging camera, the FLIR One is now available for $349.
Rober realized that the thermal camera in the FLIR One iPhone case could be used to secretly capture the PIN code of an unsuspecting shopper. This video by Rober demonstrates how the camera can capture the thermal image and show the heat of the numbers on the PIN keybpad.
Thermal images show the relative temperature of objects by using color, with red showing heat. The deeper the red color the higher the temperature of the object.
A thermal image of a keypad after a PIN code has been recently entered shows which numbers have been touched. A thief seeing the thermal image taken of a keypad could then determine which keys were pressed and in which order based upon the color of the keys in the image.
Metal keypads reflect the thermal imaging cameras so don’t reveal the PIN code keys that were pressed.
This method doesn’t guarantee success but gives thieves very good odds of determining your PIN code. A USC study showed an 80% success rate in guessing a PIN code based on a thermal image taken after the code was entered.
Why This Theft Is So Dangerous
One of the dangers of this thermal imaging trick is that your PIN code could be retrieved after you’ve left the store. While you may be vigilant in covering your hand as you enter your PIN code and making sure that no one is watching you as you enter it, you have no control over what happens after you leave.
The FLIR case for the iPhone looks like a normal iPhone case so even if you stuck around after your purchase, you would likely have no idea that someone was taking a thermal image of the keypad. You could be a witness to the thief swiping your PIN code and not even realize it was happening.
The good news is that you can easily protect yourself from this thermal imaging theft. As Rober explains in the video, you can rest your other fingers on the other numbers on the keypad to warm them up as you enter your PIN. You could also place your palm on the keypad after you’ve entered your PIN.
By touching other keys you can make thermal images of the keypad worthless to thieves.
Thieves Still Need Your Card Number
A PIN code doesn’t matter much if the thief doesn’t have your card number. A thief has two ways of getting your card number: physically or through hacking. A thief could target a victim whose PIN code they’ve obtained and try to steal the credit/debit card.
With the recent hacking of credit/debit card information from stores such as Home Depot and Target, thieves have a huge database of card numbers. Pairing those cards with stolen PIN codes hasn’t been an issue yet. But you can stay ahead of thieves by merely touching the other numbers on the keypad after you make a purchase, thwarting them and the potential for using your pilfered PIN code.
Have you heard about this new type of theft? Will you start protecting yourself against thermal imaging technology when you use a PIN keypad? Let us know in the Comments section below!
Awesome Happy Video
If you enjoy watching videos of people dancing to Happy by Pharrell Williams, then you may still be checking out videos from We Are Happy From Around the World!.
While you may not have finished watching all the Happy videos yet, take a moment to enjoy this video of children at Camp Mark Seven, a deaf film camp, who created their own Happy video this summer using American Sign Language:
If you’re now a fan of this video, well, you’re not alone. Williams gave some Twitter love to the video.
⇒ Also see, Marlee Signs – Learn Sign Language from an App! for a fun way to learn American Sign Language.
* Thermal Image courtesy of Eirik Stavelin via Flickr and Creative Commons