Through the air: The sound of computer keystroke can now be used for spying purposes
'Air gap' between computers can inadvertently reveal sensitive information
Computer malware that can capture keystrokes from a computer and then hijack the sound-card to send data to a nearby machine has been developed by researchers. These high-frequency sounds, unable to be detected by the human ear, can inadvertently send sensitive information to other parties - which poses a new security risk.
Using frequencies outside the range of human hearing, it's likely that such messages would escape detection - even when they are beamed across an office full of staff.
Researchers were able to use the built-in speakers and the microphones of computers to transmit passwords and other data at a rate of 20 bits per second over a distance of almost 20 meters. This allows the malware to "secretly leak critical data to the outside world."
"If we want to exploit a rigorously hardened and tested type of computing system or networks of this type of computing system, we have to break new ground," Germany's Fraunhofer Institute for Communication, Information Processing and Ergonomics, said in the recent report.
Using frequencies outside the range of human hearing, it's likely that such messages would escape detection - even when they are beamed across an office full of staff. Speakers and microphones are often overlooked in security planning.
Such an attempt wouldn't merely stop at transmitting audio from one computer to another. It would attempt to infect as many PCs as possible, creating a mesh network to enable multi-hop communication. Most alarmingly, the victim's machine and the computer which transmits data back to the attacker via the internet do not have to be within audible range of each other.
The experiment used five Lenovo T400 laptops running Debian 7.1 and was performed in a standard computer lab with no particularly unusual audio characteristics.
Transmissions were sent at around 20kHz and were found to be far below the range of humans during the experiment. The paper suggests that this frequency could be even higher, to make it even less likely to be detected, but that this would reduce the broadcast range.
Researchers were able to covertly log the keystrokes made by a user at one computer and broadcast them over audio through a chain of other computers. The message was eventually passed to a machine connected to the Internet, and sent back to a attacker.
"Alongside keystroke information it would also be possible to forward other security critical data such as private encryption keys or small-sized text files with classified information from the infected victim to the covert network," researchers said.
"This data could be sent out periodically to maximize the likelihood of data extraction from the host and it could also be spread to different environments when the computing system is carried around.
"We have shown that the establishment of covert acoustical mesh networks in air is feasible in setups with commonly available business laptops."
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