How Hackers Can Steal Secrets from Reflections

How Hackers Can Steal Secrets from Reflections: Scientific American

From the May 2009 Scientific American Magazine | 7 comments
How Hackers Can Steal Secrets from Reflections
Information thieves can now go around encryption, networks and the operating system

By W. Wayt Gibbs

JEN CHRISTIANSEN (photoillustration of reflection); DIGITAL VISION/GETTY IMAGES (man with glasses)
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Key Concepts

* Even with the best network security, your electronic data may not be safe from a
determined hacker.
* Researchers have extracted information from nothing more than the reflection of a computer monitor off an eyeball or the sounds emanating from a printer.
* These attacks are difficult to defend against and impossible to trace.

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Through the eyepiece of Michael Backes’s small Celestron telescope, the 18-point letters on the laptop screen at the end of the hall look nearly as clear as if the notebook computer were on my lap. I do a double take. Not only is the laptop 10 meters (33 feet) down the corridor, it faces away from the telescope. The image that seems so legible is a reflection off a glass teapot on a nearby table. In experiments here at his laboratory at Saarland University in Germany, Backes has discovered that an alarmingly wide range of objects can bounce secrets right off our screens and into an eavesdropper’s camera. Spectacles work just fine, as do coffee cups, plastic bottles, metal jewelry—even, in his most recent work, the eyeballs of the computer user. The mere act of viewing information can give it away.

The reflection of screen images is only one of the many ways in which our computers may leak information through so-called side channels, security holes that bypass the normal encryption and operating-system restrictions we rely on to protect sensitive data. Researchers recently demonstrated five different ways to surreptitiously capture keystrokes, for example, without installing any software on the target computer. Technically sophisticated observers can extract private data by reading the flashing light-emitting diodes (LEDs) on network switches or by scrutinizing the faint radio-frequency waves that every monitor emits. Even certain printers make enough noise to allow for acoustic eavesdropping.

Outside of a few classified military programs, side-channel attacks have been largely ignored by computer security researchers, who have instead focused on creating ever more robust encryption schemes and network protocols. Yet that approach can secure only information that is inside the computer or network. Side-channel attacks exploit the unprotected area where the computer meets the real world: near the keyboard, monitor or printer, at a stage before the information is encrypted or after it has been translated into human-readable form. Such attacks also leave no anomalous log entries or corrupted files to signal that a theft has occurred, no traces that would allow security researchers to piece together how frequently they happen. The experts are sure of only one thing: whenever information is vulnerable and has significant monetary or intelligence value, it is only a matter of time until someone tries to steal it.

From Tempest to Teapot
The idea of stealing information through side channels is far older than the personal computer. In World War I the intelligence corps of the warring nations were able to eavesdrop on one another’s battle orders because field telephones of the day had just one wire and used the earth to carry the return current. Spies connected rods in the ground to amplifiers and picked up the conversations. In the 1960s American military scientists began studying the radio waves given off by computer monitors and launched a program, code-named “Tempest,” to develop shielding techniques that are used to this day in sensitive government and banking computer systems. Without Tempest shielding, the image being scanned line by line onto the screen of a standard cathode-ray tube monitor can be reconstructed from a nearby room—or even an adjacent building—by tuning into the monitor’s radio transmissions.

Many people assumed that the growing popularity of flat-panel displays would make Tempest problems obsolete, because flat panels use low voltages and do not scan images one line at a time. But in 2003 Markus G. Kuhn, a computer scientist at the University of Cambridge Computer Laboratory, demonstrated that even flat-panel monitors, including those built into laptops, radiate digital signals from their video cables, emissions that can be picked up and
decoded from many meters away. The monitor refreshes its image 60 times or more each second; averaging out the common parts of the pattern leaves just the changing pixels—and a readable copy of whatever the target display is showing.

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