24 Apr, 2020
A new and unconventional way of stealing data from highly-secured computers, by tampering with its cooling-system fans, is possible, according to Israeli scientists.
Their research has been released by Mordechai Guri, head of R&D at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel.
The novel technique, dubbed AiR-ViBeR, apparently allows a hacker to dip into any computer, including the so-called air gapped systems – those that are disconnected from any networks. To steal the data, a hacker needs to listen carefully to the noise emitted by computer cooling fans.
“We observe that computers vibrate at a frequency correlated to the rotation speed of their internal fans,” Guri said. “These inaudible vibrations affect the entire structure on which the computer is placed.”
While the technique is novel indeed, there are a few caveats that make it not the most practical. First, the target ‘highly-secured’ computer needs to be injected with a piece of malware called Fansmitter, needed to control the speed of the system’s fans and create readable vibrations. Then the hacker needs a smart phone with an accelerometer that has to be in close vicinity of the target –preferably on the same table– to actually listen to the fans and siphon data.
Moreover, it’s not possible to funnel-off large amounts of data with this novel method, the researchers admitted. Still, it may be used to steal small amounts of data, namely usernames and passwords, as well as to snatch encryption keys.
The researchers have also offered a set of countermeasures to combat the hacking technique, ranging from fitting the computer with its own accelerometer, to detect anomalous fan behavior, to using software jamming. Apart from that, one can isolate the highly-sensitive computer in a vibration-proof environment or just remove all its fans and opt for liquid cooling.
All in all, simply shunning any shady guys with smartphones from your ‘highly-secured’ rig might be actually the best technique to prevent that extravagant hacking attempt.