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Why Google Glass security remains a work in progress

Mar 21, 20143 mins
CybercrimeData and Information SecurityGoogle Glass

University researchers develop spyware for Glass that snaps pictures and sends them to a remote server

University researchers’ recent experiment with spyware for Google Glass has demonstrated that lots of security work remains before the head-mounted computer eyepiece is available for consumers.

[Despite hack, security experts urge no fear of Google Glass]

Mike Lady and Kim Paterson, both California Polytechnic San Luis Obispo graduate researchers, built what may be the first spyware proof-of-concept for Glass. When installed, the app directs Glass to take a picture every 10 seconds and upload the images to a remote server.

The Glass wearer has no idea that what he’s looking at is being photographed because the app only works when the device’s display is off. While Google prohibits developers from creating such stealthy, picture-taking apps, there is nothing in the Glass software that prevents their operation.

“It was surprising to me, because Google Glass has been out for about a year now, so I would have expected someone to come across this issue and Google to have come out with a fix for it,” Lady told CSOonline Friday.

Lady and Paterson disguised the spyware as note-taking software they called Malnotes, which they loaded onto the Google Play app store. The researchers chose Play over the MyGlass store in order to test whether Google would spot the app through its normal, automated vetting process. Because Glass is still in testing mode, apps loaded to MyGlass are manually checked.

“It probably would have been caught (in MyGlass), because we had no real functionality, other than surreptitiously taking photos,” Lady said.

Google became aware of Malnotes after the researchers’ professor tweeted about their work. Google’s initial response was heavy-handed. A staffer requested the source code and said the researchers were likely in violation of the Glass developer terms.

Google softened in subsequent correspondences, recognizing the app as legitimate research. “They’ve been more amiable since we’ve given them the code and explained what we we’re doing,” Lady said.

The researchers chose to disguise the spyware to demonstrate how making it look legitimate would better the chances of someone giving the app permission to access the Internet and the Glass camera.

If the app had been available on MyGlass, then the download and installation would be automatic. However, many apps built for Glass today are available through developers’ personal web sites, making it more likely a malicious app would be distributed through a third-party site, Lady said.

[Future malware could harm bytes, bone, and brain]

Installing from a site other than MyGlass requires the user to attach Glass to a PC via a USB port and then place the device in debug mode. How Google will handle such “side-loading” of apps in the future remains to be seen.

Glass runs the Android operating system used in smartphones today. The latter’s biggest risk of infection from malware comes from third-party app stores popular in Asia, Eastern Europe and Russia. In the U.S. the majority of Android users head to Google Play for apps.

For now, the best protections against Glass malware is to use MyGlass and be extremely careful when downloading apps from a third-party site, Lady said. In addition, Glass users should activate its gesture authentication system to prevent side-loading if someone other than the user gains physical access.

“I encourage users to do their research and not just download the latest, greatest, coolest Glass app off of some third-party site,” Lady said.

Lady and Paterson graduate this spring. Lady has a job waiting at cloud-based business software provider Workday, while Paterson is headed for Google.