Music at Starbucks Could Trigger Malware On Your Device

Author: Heather Kuhla

Standing in a long line for coffee could be a gruesome wait, thought branding specialists at Starbucks. Soon they installed sound systems in many of their restaurants and even began offering compilation CD’s and music on kiosks while waiting in line. It was beginning to be an experience just waiting in line for coffee. No one would have thought his or her cell phone would be vulnerable for acquiring harmful software in a coffee shop.

Coffed beans on striped wooden cutting board

Music, TV, video and lighting can be used by evildoers to trigger malware in cellphones and other devices. (Image credit: Alex Upshur / Greenraystudio via Wikimedia Commons)

Researchers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham have recently discovered a new way for evildoers to discretely take control of your smartphone or portable device through ambient sound and light provided at Starbucks coffee shops.

Some are calling it a type of hacking but, in order for the software to work, malware already has to be installed on your phone. However, a large body of research supports that, once certain kinds of malware are installed on your smartphone in the form of downloaded applications purchased on the device by the cell phone carrier, you are vulnerable for this kind of cell phone intrusion. It can be triggered or controlled with hidden messages, undetectable to humans, embedded within innocuous sound or light combinations. Music, music videos, and even light from the TV or specialty bulbs and fixtures could activate malware that was previously installed to activate in ways that could be harmful to your cell phone or device.

This new method of cell phone hacking rests on one of the primary features of cellular devices: they are usually always turned on. It makes sense if you think about the last time you powered off your cell phone. Because they are always connected, and always feeling around with audio and visual sensors, it makes it easy for them to pick up the triggers that bring to life malware on your device.

What are the implications for the average reader? Probably some functionality issues and even breakage if the interference is bad enough, but researchers say that it is hard to measure this new type of intrusion because it happens all the time, constantly. The researchers found that they could trigger malware with music from a distance of 55 feet, sending a brief message that the smartphone owner might not even notice but that the phone certainly will. The issue was brought up to bring awareness to cell phone carriers that perhaps they should install protective, anti-intrusion software on new devices.

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