Computer coughs up passwords, encryption keys through its cooling fans

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A dan thompson contribution
Computer coughs up passwords, encryption keys through its cooling fans

Here’s a security update to haunt your dreams, and to make the FBI’s quest
for un-exploitable cryptographic backdoors look all the more absurd: a team
of Israeli researchers has now shown that the sounds made by a computer’s
fan can be analyzed to extract everything from usernames and passwords to
full encryption keys. It’s not really a huge programming feat, as we’ll
discuss below, but from a conceptual standpoint is shows how wily modern
cyber attackers can be — and why the weakest link in any security system
still involves the human element.

In hacking, there’s a term called “phreaking” that used to refer to phone
hacking via automated touch-tone systems, but which today colloquially
refers any kind of system investigation or manipulation that uses sound as
its main mechanism of action. Phone phreakers used to make free long
distance phone calls by playing the correct series of tones into a phone
receiver — but phreaks can listen to sounds just as easily as they can
produce them, often with even greater effect.

That’s because sound has the potential to get around one of the most
powerful and widely used methods in high-level computer security:
air-gapping, or the separation of a system from any externally connected
network an attack might be able to use for entry. (The term pre-dates
wireless internet, and a Wi-Fi-connected computer is not air-gapped,
despite the literal gap of air around it.)

So how do you hack your way into an air-gapped computer? Use something that
moves easily through the air, and which all computers are creating to one
extent or another: Sound.

One favorite worry of paranoiacs is something called Van Eck Phreaking, in
which you listen to the sound output of a device to derive something about
what the device is doing; in extreme cases, it’s alleged that an attacker
can recreate the image on the screen of a properly mic’ed up CRT monitor.

more recent phreaking victory showed that it is possible to break RSA
encryption with a full copy of the encrypted message — and an audio
recording of the processor as it goes through the normal, authorized
decryption process.

See more here:

Researchers crack the world’s toughest encryption by listening to the tiny sounds made by your computer’s CPU

Chinese military, sitting at lots of computers. They may or may not be
hackers.Note that in order to do any of this, you have to get physically
close enough to your target to put a microphone within listening range. If
your target system is inside CIA Headquarters, or Google X, you’re almost
certainly going to need an agent on the inside to make that happen — and if
you’ve got one of those available, you can probably use them to do a lot
more than place microphones in places. On the other hand, once placed, this
microphone’s security hole won’t be detectable in the system logs, since it’s
not actually interacting with the system in any way, just hoovering up
incidental leakage of information.

This new fan-attack actually requires even more specialized access, since
you have to not only get a mic close to the machine, but infect the machine
with a fan-exploiting malware. The idea is that most security software
actively looks for anything that might be unusual or harmful behavior, from
sending out packets of data over the internet to

making centrifuges spin up and down more quickly. Security researchers might
have enough foresight to look at fan activity from a safety perspective, and
make sure no malware turns them off and melts the computer or something like
that, but will they be searching for data leaks in such an out of the way
part of the machine? After this paper, the answer is: “You’d better hope


A diagram of the life-cycle of the Stuxnet virus.

The team used two fan speeds to represent the 1s and 0s of their code (1,000
and 1,600 RPM, respectively,) and listened to the sequence of fan-whines to
keep track. Their maximum “bandwidth” is about 1,200 bits an hour, or about
0.15 kilobytes. That might not sound like a lot, but 0.15KB of sensitive,
identifying information can be crippling, especially if it’s something like
a password that grants further access. You can fit a little over 150
alpha-numeric characters into that space — that’s a whole lot of passwords
to lose in a single hour.

There is simply no way to make any system immune to infiltration. You can
limit the points of vulnerability, then supplement those point with other
measures — that’s what air-gapping is, condensing the vulnerabilities down
to physical access to the machine, then shoring that up with big locked
metal doors, security cameras, and armed guards.

But if Iran can’t keep its nuclear program safe, and the US can’t keep its
energy infrastructure safe, and Angela Merkel can’t keep her cell phone
safe — how likely are the world’s law enforcement agencies to be able to ask
a bunch of software companies to keep millions of diverse and
security-ignorant customers safe, with one figurative hand tied behind their

FBIOn the
other hand, this story also illustrates the laziness of the claim that the
FBI can’t develop ways of hack these phones on their own, a reality that is
equally distressing in its own way. The FBI

has bragged that it’s getting better at such attacks “every day,” meaning
that the only things protecting you from successful attacks against your
phone are: the research resources available to the FBI, and the access to
your phone that the FBI can rely on having, for instance by seizing it.

Nobody should be campaigning to make digital security weaker, to any extent,
for any reason — as this story shows, our most sensitive information is
already more than vulnerable enough as it is.


Computer coughs up passwords, encryption keys through its cooling fans


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