Headphones can be hacked and used as spying microphones

Hackers can hijack computers to record audio through headphones, research finds
Hackers can hijack computers to record audio through headphones, research finds

Headphones can be hacked and used to bug conversations, studies have found. Researchers at Israel’s Ben Gurion University have developed a piece of malware which can hijack a computer using plugged in headphones to record audio – even when the device’s microphone has been removed or disabled. Watch a demo below.

The code, named Speak(e)ar, repurposes the speakers in earbuds or headphones to use them as microphones, converting the vibrations in air into electromagnetic signals to clearly capture audio from across a room.

It also uses Realtek audio chips, a common component in many Windows and Mac computers, to re-task the computer’s output channel as an input channel, even when the earphones are plugged into an output-only jack.

Their study found that a pair of Sennheiser headphones could be hacked to eavesdrop on a conversation from 20 feet away. The malware then compressed and sent the audio over the internet.

Ben Gurion’s Cyber Security Research Labs leader Mordechai Guri tells Wired: “This is the real vulnerability. It’s what makes almost every computer today vulnerable to this type of attack.

“People don’t think about this privacy vulnerability. Even if you remove your computer’s microphone, if you use headphones you can be recorded.”

Researchers have yet to determine which other audio chips are susceptible to the code, though the researchers believe smartphones and other devices could also be at risk.

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Former TeamRock news desk member Christina joined our team in late 2015, and although her time working on online rock news was fairly brief, she made a huge impact by contributing close to 1500 stories. Christina also interviewed artists including Deftones frontman Chino Moreno and worked at the Download festival. In late 2016, Christina left rock journalism to pursue a career in current affairs. In 2021, she was named Local Weekly Feature Writer of the Year at the Scottish Press Awards.