Researchers Demonstrate PIN Code Theft via Thermal Imaging

Paul Lilly

Here's another rule of thumb to live by. If you're getting ready to punch in your PIN code at an ATM and notice the guy behind you is wielding a digital camera, find another ATM. That's because researchers at the University of California, San Diego, published a study showing how digital cameras capable of digital imaging can capture PIN codes by picking up heat patterns left on the keypad.

According to the study, this technique is effective more than 80 percent of the time if there isn't any time lapse, and has about a 50 percent success rate after a minute goes by. Wait a minute and a half and the chances of it being effective drop to around 20 percent, reports .

Before you go and rip up your ATM card, understand there are several things that make this kind of surveillance scam impractical. The biggest one is the type of keypad. While highly effective on plastic keypads, thermal imaging is practically useless on metal keypads, as the heat quickly dissipates. Even if your PIN code does get picked up by some guy in a tree zooming in with his camera, he still won't know the order of the key presses. And finally, high-end cameras that make this technique possible typically run $18,000.

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