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Smartphones leak more user information than anyone previously thought, new research said.

By tracking and profile users and their devices, security researchers at Sensepost were able to observe the phones’ attempts to join Wi-Fi networks. Daniel Cuthbert and Glenn Wilkinson created their own distributed data interception framework, dubbed Snoopy, that profiled mobiles, laptops and their users in real-time.

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Smartphones tend to keep a record of Wi-Fi base stations users previously connected to, and often poll the airwaves to see if a friendly network is within reach. Although this makes joining wireless networks seamless for users, it also made it too easy for the researchers to link home addresses and other information to individually identifiable devices.

“We tested in numerous countries and during one rush-hour period in central London,” Cuthbert said. “We saw over 77,000 devices and as a result, were able to map device IDs to the last 5 APs they connected to. Then using geo-location, we were able to map them out to physical locations.”

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“Apple devices were the noisiest based upon our observations,” he said.

This phase of the project involved only passively listening to Wi-Fi network requests, rather than complete interception. To help the pair process the huge volume of data collected, the researchers used a visualization tool called Maltego Radium developed by third-party developers Paterva.

Cuthbert and Wilkinson set up Wi-Fi access points that collected probe requests of smartphones and other wireless devices before deploying a few of these around London, and using Maltego Radium to make sense of the data collected in real-time. “We could work out the most common movement patterns using the SSID probes sent out from their mobile phones,” Cuthbert said.

It would not take much for a hacker to use the same type of system to carry out targeted attacks.

“If we wanted to do illegal activities, we could pretend to be one of those networks, route all traffic through our central server and then perform analysis on the traffic,” Cuthbert said. “This would allow us to dump all credentials, strip down SSL connections, injecting malicious code into all web pages requested, grab social media credentials etc.”

The research established that smartphones leak a lot more information than even tech-savvy people would imagine. “Apple, Google and so on do not have any documentation about how noisy their devices are,” Cuthbert said.

The researchers advised users to use more common sense and disable Wi-Fi scanning until they needed to actually access the web. “We will click on anything, and rarely turn bits off when outside, for example,” Cuthbert said. “People are more used to ensuring their laptops are secure.”

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