VR headsets can be hacked with an Inception-style attack

In the Christoper Nolan movie Inception, Leonardo DiCaprio’s character uses technology to enter his targets’ dreams to steal information and insert false details into their subconscious.  A new “inception attack” in virtual reality works in a similar way. Researchers at the University of Chicago exploited a security vulnerability in Meta’s Quest VR system that allows…
VR headsets can be hacked with an Inception-style attack

In the attack, hackers create an app that injects malicious code into the Meta Quest VR system and then launch a clone of the VR system’s home screen and apps that looks identical to the user’s original screen. Once inside, attackers can see, record, and modify everything the person does with the headset. That includes tracking voice, gestures, keystrokes, browsing activity, and even the user’s social interactions. The attacker can even change the content of a user’s messages to other people. The research, which was shared with MIT Technology Review exclusively, is yet to be peer reviewed.

A spokesperson for Meta said the company plans to review the findings: “We constantly work with academic researchers as part of our bug bounty program and other initiatives.” 

VR headsets have slowly become more popular in recent years, but security research has lagged behind product development, and current defenses against attacks in VR are lacking. What’s more, the immersive nature of virtual reality makes it harder for people to realize they’ve fallen into a trap. 

“The shock in this is how fragile the VR systems of today are,” says Heather Zheng, a professor of computer science at the University of Chicago, who led the team behind the research. 

Stealth attack

The inception attack exploits a loophole in Meta Quest headsets: users must enable “developer mode” to download third-party apps, adjust their headset resolution, or screenshot content, but this mode allows attackers to gain access to the VR headset if they’re using the same Wi-Fi network. 

Developer mode is supposed to give people remote access for debugging purposes. However, that access can be repurposed by a malicious actor to see what a user’s home screen looks like and which apps are installed. (Attackers can also strike if they are able to access a headset physically or if a user downloads apps that include malware.) With this information, the attacker can replicate the victim’s home screen and applications. 

Then the attacker stealthily injects an app with the inception attack in it. The attack is activated and the VR headset hijacked when unsuspecting users exit an application and return to the home screen. The attack also captures the user’s display and audio stream, which can be livestreamed back to the attacker.