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Sunday, May 03, 2009

How they steal the data from your computer

Researchers have developed two new techniques for stealing data from a computer that use some unlikely hacking tools: cameras and telescopes.

In two separate pieces of research, teams at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and at Saarland University in Saarbrucken, Germany, describe attacks that seem ripped from the pages of spy novels. In Saarbrucken, the researchers have read computer screens from their tiny reflections on everyday objects such as glasses, teapots, and even the human eye. The UC team has worked out a way to analyze a video of hands typing on a keyboard in order to guess what was being written.

Computer security research tends to focus on the software and hardware inside the PC, but this kind of "side-channel" research, which dates back at least 45 years, looks at the physical environment. Side-channel work in the U.S. was kicked off in 1962 when the U.S. National Security Agency discovered strange surveillance equipment in the concrete ceiling of a U.S. Department of State communications room in Japan and began studying how radiation emitted by communication components could be intercepted. (Compare Data Leak Protection products)

Much of this work has been top secret, such as the NSA's Tempest program. But side-channel hacking has been in the public eye too.

In fact, if you've seen the movie "Sneakers," then the University of California's work will have a familiar ring. That's because a minor plot point in this 1992 Robert Redford film about a group of security geeks was the inspiration for their work.

In the movie, Redford's character, Marty Bishop, tries to steal a password by watching video of his victim, mathematician Gunter Janek, as he enters his password into a computer. "Oh, this is good," Redford says, "He's going to type in his password and we're going to get a clear shot"

Redford's character never does get his password, but the UC researchers' Clear Shot tool may give others a fighting chance, according to Marco Cova, a graduate student at the school.

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