Apple's iPhone 5S reopens debate on sensor data collection

While data collected from sensors can be useful to hackers, it can also help defend against them by alerting companies to unusual behavior

Companies should consider carefully the security risks presented by the extensive amount of user data Apple's forthcoming iPhone 5S stores from its many sensors.

Information drawn from the smartphone's compass, gyroscope and accelerometer are stored in a new chip called the M7, where the data can be accessed through Apple's CoreMotion API (application programming interface).

The feature is aimed at software developers, particularly those building health and fitness apps. But while the data will be useful in helping apps monitor calories burned and heart rate during physical activity, it can also be a bonanza for criminals.

Many studies have been done showing how analyzing such data can reveal surprising details about a person. A study published in March in Scientific Reports showed how tracking someone's movements with a phone's GPS could easily identify that person.

A University of California study funded in part by the National Science Foundation found that information gathered from a phone's motion-sensing devices, including the accelerometer and gyroscope, could be used to infer keystrokes on the touchscreen (PDF document). As a result, passwords used to log into apps or unlock the phone could be recorded.

Sensors have been used for sometime in smartphones to make the devices easier to use and more fun for consumers. Samsung and Google have motion-tracking technologies similar to Apple's in the Galaxy S4 and Moto X, respectively.

The Moto X, built by Google-owned Motorola Mobiity and released in August, includes a personal digital assistant that can guess what information or services people want by reading emails and schedules and tracking search queries. The amount of personal information accessed by the PDA has raised security concerns among experts

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Because of the potential risk of having sensory data stored on the phone, companies should weigh each vendor's security measures before deciding whether to allow employees to use the devices to access corporate networks. Because there is no perfect security, companies should balance risk with the reward of using a particular device.

"Fun and easy and secure typically don't go together," said Andrew Hoog, chief executive of mobile security vendor viaForensics. "If somebody figures out how to make fun, easy and secure, they're going to make a lot of money. There's always some sort of tradeoff."

Apple's inclusion of the M7 chip is not expected to have a significant impact on the security of the iPhone, said Dirk Sigurdson, director of engineering for Rapid7. The sensory data has been available to developers for several years.

"The M7 chip will make the collection of this data much more efficient, so that applications that use the CoreMotion API have less negative impact on battery," he said.

While data collected from sensors can be useful to hackers, it can also help defend against them, Hoog said. Security vendors can use such information to build a profile of how people use their phone, and alert companies when there is unusual behavior.

The bottom line is when deciding whether to support a new smartphone on a corporate network, companies should first consider whether any new enhancements hurt security and then ask themselves, "What is their appetite for risk and can they move forward (with the new device)," Hoog said.

Apple unveiled on Tuesday the iPhone 5S and a less-expensive model, the iPhone 5C. They are expected to be available Sept. 20.

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