Visual hacking and the iPhone 6s’s new camera

Bob covello
Bob Covello

The announcement of Apple’s new iPhone 6s revealed some impressive advancements in technology for such a small device.

One notable piece of technology that is truly noteworthy is the new, 12 megapixel camera. The iPhone 6s’s new camera is claimed to bring clarity and vividness that was previously reserved to professional-grade cameras.

Iphone 6s camera

More stunning detail in every single pixel.

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The iSight camera captures beautiful 12-megapixel still photos. But great photos aren’t just measured in megapixels. That’s why we’ve added a state-of-the-art sensor, a new image signal processor, advanced pixel technology, Focus Pixels, improved local tone mapping, and optical image stabilization. What does that all mean? It means we’ve taken care of the technology. All you have to do is find something beautiful and tap the shutter button for the best, most awe-inspiring photos you’ve ever taken.

What could possibly be the problem with a camera of such high quality in a phone?

Iphone 6s cameraAll of these new high-definition cameras enable anyone to perform the technique known as “visual hacking”.

Visual hacking is achieved by seeing confidential information in plain view, (such as that employee file that was left on the desk in the Human Resources department), or taking a photograph of confidential information or a confidential location. (There is a good reason why many airports restrict photography)

Earlier this year, 3M Corporation and the Visual Privacy Advisory Council commissioned a study exploring the effectiveness of visual hacking.

The study’s results showed that confidential information was easily accessible using visual hacking. Could this be a harbinger of possible future events in our privacy-challenged world?

As an article in American Banker earlier this week reports, even the most sophisticated bank security system could be easily subverted simply by taking photographs of documents left on desks or a teller’s screen.

And the same is likely to be true in offices, where workers leave sensitive documents lying around or their screens unlocked when they step away from their desk.

Deserted desk

Earlier this year a “visual hacking experiment” by the Ponemon Institute discovered that visual hackers were able to obtain sensitive information in 88% of cases.

How long could a person walk around in a bank snapping photos with an old 12MP SLR camera without raising the suspicion of the bank manager or other patrons? Not too long, I suppose. However, could you tell if someone staring into their phone was actually taking photos, rather than just checking their social media accounts?

I am generally not an alarmist, and I am not overly concerned that the world will be frantically snapping photos to steal information from every available vantage point.

But these new improved digital capabilities will certainly cause me to be a bit more cautious when handing my credit card or other confidential information to a clerk while someone appears to be casually checking their Twitter feed behind me in the queue.

What do you think? Will this new ability to quickly snap crystal clear photos cause you to be more cautious?

Bob Covello (@BobCovello) is a 20-year technology veteran and InfoSec analyst with a passion for security topics. He is also a volunteer for various organizations focused on advocating for and advising others about staying safe and secure online.

4 comments on “Visual hacking and the iPhone 6s’s new camera”

  1. David L

    Pictures? They could be taking video and then they could just edit the frames they need. I do that on my old HTC Evo 4g lte. I captured a moving quad racer, from a distance, was able to freeze frame,zoom in,and had a nice full size picture of the guys face after about three edits. With those newer cameras, reading card numbers will be no problem!

    Now comes the problem of the government/spies who will now want to monitor your camera. As it stands right now, YOU CAN NOT disable camera on any Android,without a special app that needs administrator control/permission.

  2. DontPanic

    People have been sneaking pictures of confidential information since the 1800's. Fear of how technology is used hasn't and will never change the behavior of the apathetic.

  3. Spryte

    For almost 50 years I have carried a camera with me, including a Minolta sub-miniature (my buddy James Bond used one in one of his films ;) ), and never once even thought of taking photos of papers at work or in a bank.
    I guess people think differently now.

    As a side note, last year my neighbour got a new smartphone with a 20 MP camera…

  4. Sean Durrant

    Sure – I'd be concerned but not sure if i'd walk up to someone and demand to know if they were taking pictures or filming…

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