Keep it clean…and be safe

My hacked (for apps) iPhone & an iPod Touch at...
Image by Steve Rhodes via Flickr

Did you realize that failing to keep your electronics clean could actually impact your security?

Back in the ’70s I was fortunate enough to work in both law enforcement and national intelligence. Both taught me that often the most useful intelligence or evidence comes from the most mundane sources. This was in an era when electronic door locks were the height of technology. We would frequently amuse ourselves by guessing the passcode of a door based solely on the wear pattern of the keys.

People tend to be unaware of just how often they type their password (and too many people only have one password for all their online activities) every day. On light-colored keyboards, the keys used most often become more soiled and more worn than other keys. On dark-colored keyboards, the most used keys become shiny. By looking for the most worn, dirty and shiny keys on a keyboard, I can get a reasonable idea of which keys you use to type your password. This method isn’t foolproof nor does it guarantee I would be able to guess a complex password based on which keys were used the most, but it does provide a means of making it easier for me to reconstruct your password.

Users of the iPhone and iPod touch that password protect their devices have a similar problem. The face of the device retains finger impressions clearly visible on the glass. We know that iPhone passwords are 4 characters long, and by seeing where the fingerprints on the glass face line up with the “enter password” screen, we can pretty easily determine which 4 characters are being used. All we have to do then is try various combinations until we get the right one.

I’m not sure that cleanliness is next to godliness, but I can say that electronic cleanliness is a good security practice. Clean off your keyboards with a paper towel slightly dampened with alcohol every day. Wipe off the face of your iPhone or iPod with a lint-free or microfibre cloth daily.

Don’t let dirt compromise your security.

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