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Screen hacking: What is it, and how will you know if you’ve been hacked?

Screen hacking is a contactless attack during which hackers take remote control of your touchscreen. How can you know if your touchscreen has been hacked? Can attackers take control of your screen to access your passwords, apps, and files – and how can you prevent it? Read on to find out.

Screen hacking: What is it, and how will you know if you’ve been hacked?

What is screen hacking?

In a screen hacking attack, hackers use electromagnetic interference (EMI) to inject false touch points into a touchscreen remotely, without anyone needing to touch it.

It’s a new attack type, which researchers have called the “first active contactless attack against capacitive touchscreens.”

You may have heard the term “GhostTouch” – when your smartphone touchscreen presses random buttons on its own, without you doing anything. This term defines what happens when someone hacks a touchscreen device.

Attackers use electromagnetic signals to simulate primary touch events like taps and swipes on targeted locations of the touchscreen. The goal is to take remote control of your smartphone to manipulate it in potentially dangerous ways. These could include selecting buttons, accessing your data and passwords, establishing an unsafe Wi-Fi connection, accessing unsafe services, or installing malware.

How does screen hacking work?

In simple terms, attackers use electromagnetic interference (EMI) to make your smartphone perform various actions, without anyone needing to touch it.

The most common places for touchscreen hacking are public places like libraries, cafes, or conference lobbies, where people place their smartphones face-down on the table. The attackers prepare the equipment under the table to launch a remote attack.

According to academics from Zhejiang University and the Technical University of Darmstadt, the attack uses “electromagnetic interference (EMI) to inject fake touch points into a touchscreen without the need to physically touch it.”

The attack works from a distance of up to 40mm and takes advantage of capacitive touchscreen sensitivity to EMI. Attackers can inject electromagnetic signals into the electrodes that are built into the touchscreen to register them as touch events.

These events can be a tap, a swipe, or a more sophisticated press and hold. Here are some of the actions attackers may be able to perform once they’ve hacked into your touchscreen device:

  • Take control of your keyboard
  • Start typing into your browser
  • Open malicious programs or websites
  • Change privacy settings
  • Connect to malicious Wi-Fi
  • Install viruses or tracking programs
  • Watch videos with malicious pop-up ads
  • Access your data or details
  • Visit a page or site containing a virus
  • Access social media websites (e.g., Facebook)
  • Click on spam links
  • Answer or make calls

The attack works on nine smartphone models, including Android and Apple devices.

Can attackers control your screen remotely?

Yes, hackers can control your touchscreen remotely during an EMI attack. They don’t have to be nearby as long as the equipment is no more than 40mm away. For example, it could be under the table where your smartphone is lying face down.

How to know if your screen has been hacked

If your screen has been hacked, it will start operating by itself. If you suspect your phone has been hacked, it’s important to react immediately to prevent further damage. Here’s how you can tell if someone has gained control of your screen remotely:

  • Your phone is answering calls on your behalf. If your phone is ringing and suddenly answers the call without you doing anything, this could mean someone else is controlling your touchscreen.
  • Your phone unlocks itself. Touchscreen hackers can induce behaviors such as swiping and tapping. If your phone unlocks itself, it may indicate that someone is controlling it remotely.
  • Your phone starts to operate by itself. Touchscreen hackers can manipulate your touchscreen remotely. If you see your phone opening a URL, logging in to your bank account, opening files, playing a video, visiting sites, or typing in the search field without your input, someone has likely hacked into your touchscreen.
  • You’ve noticed some unusual Bluetooth or Wi-Fi connections. Attackers may try to establish a malicious connection to perform man-in-the-middle attacks or manipulate the phone with a Bluetooth mouse.

How to protect yourself against touchscreen hacking

You can protect yourself against touchscreen attacks in several ways, from adding more security to your phone to being more vigilant in public places.

Researchers recommend that smartphone manufacturers do more to secure smartphones against such attacks – like adding an EMI shield or improving operating systems with better detection algorithms.

As with many types of attacks, you can take several steps to protect yourself and prevent them from happening. Here are some tips on how to avoid a touchscreen attack:

  • Add an extra layer of security. In addition to secure passwords, ensure you enable advanced measures like facial recognition, fingerprint, or a PIN for high-risk actions (like money transfers). Doing so will ensure that you can prevent significant financial losses even if you fall victim to touchscreen hacking.
  • Be mindful of your smartphone in public places. When we’re enjoying a cup of coffee or attending a business conference, it’s not unusual for us to leave our phones lying face-down on the table. Doing so gives hackers the perfect opportunity to use their EMI hacking system to attack. Keep your phone close in public places and check to ensure nothing unusual is happening.
  • Keep your phone’s operating system up to date. Updates provide essential security functions that could reduce the likelihood of an attack. They manage vulnerabilities and may even contain an additional feature specifically developed to protect your phone against such attacks.
  • Use NordVPN’s Threat Protection. While it won’t prevent a GhostTouch attack,Threat Protection is an advanced security feature that blocks malware, trackers, and ads. Using Threat Protection or Threat Protection Lite on your phone will help prevent hackers from opening harmful links online and downloading malicious software.

Touchscreen hacking is a relatively new type of targeted attack. It’s important to raise awareness to alert and encourage people to enhance their smartphone security.

While using a VPN won’t always prevent hacking attacks, it will encrypt your connection, enhancing your overall digital security and privacy. NordVPN also offers several advanced security features for staying safe online that can help prevent or reduce the likelihood of many types of cyberattacks.

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