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An Airgap Won’t Secure Your Computer Anymore



Security professionals have said for years that the only way to make a computer truly secure is for it to not be connected to any other computers, a method called airgapping. Then, any attack would have to happen physically, with the attacker actually entering the room and accessing the computer that way, which is incredibly unlikely. In the case of computers containing highly sensitive information, additional, physical security can always be added in the form of security guards, cameras, and so on.

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Researchers at Georgia Institute of Technology have uncovered a vulnerability in all computers, however, which can be exploited regardless of an air gap. It’s a vulnerability which you’d never suspect, and it’s one that’s hard to fight against. All CPUs emit electromagnetic signals when they are performing tasks, and the first thing these researchers discovered was that binary ones and zeroes emit different levels. The second thing they discovered is that electromagnetic radiation is also emitted by the voltage fluctuations and that it can be read from up to six meters away. These signals, by the way, are known as side-channels, and they are well-documented in the cryptography field.

The Least Traditional Attack You’ve Ever Seen

airgapSide channels are a powerful class of attacks that circumvent traditional security protections and access controls. Unlike traditional attacks that exploit vulnerabilities in what the system does, side channel attacks allow information to be obtained by observing how the system does it, reads their white paper.

The researchers, whose names are Robert Callan, Alenka Zajic, and Milos Prvulovic, have developed software which allows them to overcome the two main problems of this type of attack: multiple weak signals and determining what is of interest and what is not, such as keystrokes. In this video, Milos demonstrates that the keystrokes can be decoded in real time from across the room.

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The white paper tries very hard to impress the importance of this vulnerability. An attacker who knows what they are looking for can do a great deal of damage using technology like this. They note that a vulnerability rating has been proposed recently, but that the proposal doesn’t do much in the way of providing developers of future technologies with a roadmap of improvement.

The current state of the art is the recently proposed Side-Channel Vulnerability Factor (SVF), which measures how the side channel signal correlates with high-level execution patterns (e.g. program phase transitions). While this metric allows overall assessment of the “leakiness” of a particular system and application over a given side channel, it provides limited insight to 1) computer architects about which architectural and microarchitectural features are the strongest leakers, and to 2) software developers about how to reduce the side channel leakiness of their code.

Nothing New Under the Sun

Elsewhere, in Israel, a similar process has been developed for except it runs on a cell phone, called the AirHopper. This was done back in October to challenge a policy of letting people bring their mobile phones on secure sites as long as they locked them up in a locker before beginning work. The Israeli researchers proved that they could get data from computers that were connected to no standard network by using side-channels.

With the foundations laid for this sort of compromise, one can only assume that it will be developed by governments and bad actors alike in order to further spy on communications of everyday people as well as gain access to incredibly sensitive data.

Farraday Cage Remedy

Conceivably, rooms containing computers or the computer cases themselves could be augmented with Farraday cages that would prevent this sort of close-range monitoring because the signals wouldn’t make it past the cage. Doing this on your home PC might seem overkill now. But as the technique gains wider usage and the technology which enables it is improved, a revival of wardriving could happen in highly populated areas, this time with the intention of stealing passwords and other sensitive data. One thing is for sure: the future of computer security will have to account for this new, universal vulnerability in some way.

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  1. Del_Varner

    January 29, 2015 at 3:29 pm

    Umm, this is why there used to be (and maybe still are) computers that were “Tempested” or perhaps subjected to “Tempest” requirements, so they would not emit any electromagnetic radiation.

  2. Icahn Breathe

    January 29, 2015 at 3:35 pm

    Let me just be the first to say this isn’t what you think it is:

    This requires a special program to be installed on the “target”/”monitored” laptop that emits specially coded RF when keys are typed on the keyboard. Since you have to install a special program you might as well just install a traditional keylogger.

    Also, I am presuming they are turning off the wireless on the laptop in order to reduce the radiation.

    Hardly a “coffeeshop” scenario as they present it to be in the video.

  3. Mark Hahn

    January 29, 2015 at 3:42 pm

    this was embarrassingly obvious to anyone whose had even passing acquaintance with security.

    • votingmachine

      January 29, 2015 at 7:50 pm

      The strength of the signal surprises me. It may be obvious that every electrical current generates electromagnetic waves, but I would not have guessed at the 6 meter range. I would have guessed the radiative power level at MUCH lower. 5 Volts and a few micro-to-milli-Amps … across a complicated circuit.

      I’m still VERY skeptical. Reading keystrokes from 6 meters away may have been the limit. You don’t need a Farraday cage, just the knowledge of the distance and interference around you. And to be clear, the computer is not compromised. There is a slight leakage of information … I don’t think anyone is going to reconstruct much from the mish-mash of emitted spectrum from a computer.

      I typed this. Distinguishing the ASCII codes sent with an antenna from even 6 meters away is an impressive feat. I would doubt the spy could tell what I am listening to on the Sonos App though. Or what my spreadsheet is populated with. Or where the mouse curser is when I click.

      And once again. It is still an uncompromised computer if it has an airgap. It is just that it may be possible to spy in ways that are not yet known. Not to remotely access, but to spy unobtrusively. Even that seems impossible, in a world with a computer every 10 feet.

      • Mark Hahn

        January 30, 2015 at 4:17 am

        I think you underestimate how valuable (for compromise) it is to know anything about what a computer is doing. Consider the classic timing attack – each observation provides very, very little information, but combined with a sequence of probes, it’s very easy to infer keys (in vulnerable protocols)…

  4. sirlanse

    January 29, 2015 at 4:01 pm

    It is the progress of antennas. The military has routinely separated computers from the power grid so that how much power was being drawn would not tell someone what was being computed. There are RF blocks built for water pipes, so that the people could not listen in on the pipes for RF from the computers. You should not just faraday the computer, the keyboard wire needs to be insulated as well.

  5. gkumbu

    January 29, 2015 at 10:55 pm

    Correction needed: “6 or 7 feet”, not meters.

  6. SamInTampa

    February 2, 2015 at 12:55 am

    Anyone remember TEMPEST? Read Masters of Deception? It is all about how close you can get to the target. This keyboard/keystroke reading and prediction news is at least 2 years old if not more.This has been well known within the security community for some time. It only scratches the surface of this topic.

  7. Edm68

    February 8, 2015 at 12:34 am

    If binary can be detected at 6 m. There is no need for 802.11 spec we could have an entirely new networking standard that just listens for cpu activity, which would be much faster. I call bs on the story. If i could get in the 6 m zone near to secure infrastructure, the target has bigger security issues.

  8. Mark Cross

    February 8, 2015 at 4:02 pm

    Operation STOCKADE (MI5/GCHQ): analysis of compromising emanation from French cipher machine cables in 1960. They used broad band radio detection of the cables, and were actually able to read the original plain text along the low-grade cipher sequence. Surprisingly, murmurs of high-grade ciphers could sometimes be read from the same cable, which after comparison to the cable fed signal, gave a path to even that cipher’s plain text leakage. From 1960 to 1963 the MI5 and GCHQ could read cipher traffic to and from the French Embassy in London.

    wikip Peter Wright

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Coders Safeguard Vulnerable Ethereum Wallets Following Security Breach



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Ethereum suffered large-scale security breaches last week after anonymous hackers targeted vulnerable wallets in the network, resulting in the loss of tens of millions of dollars. However, it didn’t take long for a volunteer group of coders to “rescue” the funds in 500 at-risk wallets before the same attackers could get to them too.

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White Hat Group Takes Charge

The so-called White Hat Group showed initiative by “rescuing” the funds using the same techniques the thieves employed to compromise $32 million USD worth of ether from three multi-signature wallets. As of Monday, the White Hat Group of ethical hackers was in possession of $86 million worth of ether and an additional $122 million in tokens.

Tokens are digital assets that are sold during an Initial Coin Offering (ICO) fundraising event. They have proven to be extremely popular.

Tens of millions of dollars worth of ether and tokens have already been returned to their owners. The White Hat Group says it will issue full refunds by the end of July.

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Blockchain-based trading platform Coindash was also breached last week, resulting in the loss of more than $7 million worth of ether.

Security Breaches Nothing New in Crypto World

For all its benefits, cryptocurrency has been vulnerable to several high-profile security breaches. Last summer, Hong Kong-based Bitfinex was the target of a major attack that resulted in the theft of around $70 million worth of bitcoins. In response, the exchange announced a controversial plans to “socialize” its losses among all users. Each Bitfinex trader was docked 36% as a result.

Bitcoin prices declined sharply following the attack, stopping what had been a blistering summer of gains.

Ethereum Enterprise Alliance

For anyone doubting the potential of the ether, take a look at the list of companies participating in the Enterprise Ethereum Alliance (EEA). The EEA is a forum that connects Fortune 500 companies, startups and academics with ethereum subject matter experts.  The EEA is made up of multinational banks and some of the world’s biggest technology companies.

The forum has made cyber security a top priority, according to a May 22 press release. In the release, companies like Infosys, Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group, Synechron and others expressed their intent to contribute to the future of ethereum’s security.

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New Form of Ransomware Uses Social Media to Customize Demands



A new form of ransomware is reported to have been found that uses a person’s social media and computer files to customize a demand, according to cybersecurity researchers at Proofpoint.

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Called ‘Ransoc’ by the researchers because of its connection to social media, they found that the malware was scanning local media filenames and running several routines by interacting with Skype, LinkedIn, and Facebook profiles, infecting the system through Internet Explorer on Windows and Safari on OS X.

What’s interesting about this new type of ransomware is the fact that unlike ransomware such as Locky, which encrypts a person’s files before demanding payment, Ransoc customizes its demands to its victims.

After scanning a person’s computer files and social media to find potentially incriminating evidence, it then sends a penalty notice, threatening victims with court action if the amount isn’t paid.

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As it doesn’t encrypt a person’s files, the ransomware relies on a victim’s fear to pay the money straight away.

According to Proofpoint, though, this type of penalty notice threat was widespread during 2012 and 2014; however, since then the focus has been on crypto ransomware and other malware as a way of scamming victims out of their money.

Interestingly, enough, the team at Proofpoint discovered that the penalty notice only appeared if the malware was able to locate incriminating evidence on the computer. If, however, the file name was manually changed no penalty notice was triggered.

Not only that, but the team found that instead of demanding the payment in bitcoin, which is what the vast amount of cybercriminals using malware demand, this one demanded payment with a credit card. Unlike bitcoin, which gives criminals anonymity, the use of a credit card means that law enforcement can potentially trace the money back to the criminals a lot easier.

The fact that this method is used could suggest that the cybercriminals are happy in the belief that the victims have too much to hide to seek out help from the police. To encourage payment, though, the ransom note states that the money will be sent back to the victim if they are not caught again in 180 days.

It’s safe to say that repayment never happens.

All, it seems, is not lost.

According to Proofpoint, the Ransoc only employs a registry autorun key to persist, so rebooting in Safe Mode should allow users to remove the malware.

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Are Children Losing Their Childhood to Smart Toys?



Smart toys are on the rise, but while they may have the ability to enhance a child’s play, do they also pose a threat by spying on what children are doing?

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In an article from the New Scientist, the issue of privacy is looked into. More specifically, the privacy of children.

Nowadays, it seems it’s no longer a case of simply playing with Ken and Barbie as the imagination of a child takes over. As the article reports, various companies have been looking into how they can capture the imagination of children. One play item, in particular, is the Barbie Hello Dreamhouse and Hello Barbie.

Created by the American toy-company Mattel, Inc., Barbie has been in existence since 1959. Designed by businesswoman Ruth Handler, Barbie has maintained its popularity with children up to the present day for nearly 60 years.

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But, in a bid to keep up with technological advances in the 21st century, Mattel, Inc., has created the Barbie Hello Dreamhouse, a pink-and-white smart house for the world’s most popular doll. Apparently, the Hello Barbie is reported to be able to talk to a child on a number of topics ranging – as the New Scientist states – ‘from fashion and family to dreams and paddleboarding.’

Nothing wrong with that, you might think.

Except for the fact that when a child presses Barbie’s buckle to talk to her, every word the child makes is then transmitted to a Mattel-owned server farm where it is analyzed so that a suitable reply can be sent back to the child.

Sending Details to Third Parties

Shockingly, the information that was being stored was also being sent on to third parties, which, naturally, ensued a backlash.

According to Josh Golin, executive director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC), who launched a social media campaign #HellNoBarbie, he said that:

It just struck us as such as invasion of children’s privacy.

Open to Hackers

Children, in their innocence, don’t realize that what they are telling their dolls may now be listened to by others. This can also include hackers.

Even though toys may seem above anything else, they can just as easily become a target for hackers too.

In 2015, Chinese company VTech was targeted by hackers. Reports stated that nearly five million parents and more than 200,000 children had their information stolen after a hacker breached the servers of the toy company.

As such privacy activists have objected not only because of the concern from others listening in or the vulnerability that toys can pose, but also because it can take away the nature of a child’s play.

Taking Away the Child’s Imagination

Of course, if you walk into someone’s house, the chances are that you will find a vast array of smart technology around. Consider digital assistants such as Siri, Alexa, and Allo to name a few.

Toys, however, don’t need to be smart, do they?

After all, when it comes to child’s play that’s when a child learns how to figure out skills while playing out a fantasy world that only they see in their eyes. By playing with toys that are already preprogramed with answers seems to only hinder a child’s play rather than broaden it.

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