Potential Apple Watch snooping: a not-so-paranoid cyberespionage risk

UK ministers have reportedly been barred from wearing the Apple Watch in sensitive meetings

It may sound paranoid, but the next time you enter a highly confidential meeting, leave your smart watch behind. It's possible the device could be spying on you.

That's what ministers in the U.K. are reportedly being told. They've recently been banned from wearing Apple Watches during cabinet meetings on fears that the devices could be hacked by Russian cyberspies, according to The Telegraph.

Mobile phones have already been prohibited from cabinet meetings, but the U.K. government has reportedly taken the extra step of also banning smart watches.

The risk is that such devices could be hijacked to secretly eavesdrop on users, especially those with top secret information. Security experts warn that this possibility isn't so far-fetched and that business executives should also take precautions.

“Wearable computing devices, such as the Apple Watch -- with a built-in microphone, sensors, and wireless communication -- present a valuable attack surface for espionage," said Craig Young, a researcher with security firm Tripwire.

Security experts have already demonstrated ways that the microphone on smartphones can be used to secretly record conversations, steal a user's data, or even identify passwords based solely on the vibrations made from a nearby keyboard, he added.

Smart watches, which have generated their fair share of security concerns, could be used in the same way. The devices also generally sit on the users' wrist, putting them in a better position to allow for eavesdropping on conversations or keyboard noise, Young said.

Earlier this year, researchers found that Apple Watches can be theoretically hacked to record a user's hand movements, and even steal PIN numbers typed into ATM machines.

"In my opinion, business executives would be well-advised to either forgo smartwatches or at least remember to put them out earshot as a best practice when discussing highly valuable information," Young said.

Still, the Apple Watch hasn't become a real target for malware. Much of the malicious coding out today affects Windows PCs and Android smartphones.

Smart watches can also be limited in functionality, said Jonathan Sander, a vice president at security provider Lieberman Software. For instance, the devices mostly tether themselves to a smartphone and tend to act simply as a regular watch once out of range.

Nevertheless, foreign governments have resorted to extraordinary means to sabotage their targets. Sander pointed to the example of Stuxnet, a malicious computer worm allegedly developed by the U.S. to stop Iran's nuclear program.

"Is it really so far-fetched to imagine (Apple's voice assistant) Siri spying on your government for the other side?" he said. "Security is a battle of inches, and even the one-inch square device on your wrist may be surface area the bad guys can attack."

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Michael Kan

IDG News Service
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