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Hackers can steal cryptographic keys by video-recording power LEDs 60 feet away

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Left: a smart card reader processing the encryption key of an inserted smart card. Right: a surveillance camera video records the reader's power LED from 60 feet away.

Enlarge / Left: a smart card reader processing the encryption key of an inserted smart card. Right: a surveillance camera video records the reader's power LED from 60 feet away. (credit: Nassi et al.)

Researchers have devised a novel attack that recovers the secret encryption keys stored in smart cards and smartphones by using cameras in iPhones or commercial surveillance systems to video record power LEDs that show when the card reader or smartphone is turned on.

The attacks enable a new way to exploit two previously disclosed side channels, a class of attack that measures physical effects that leak from a device as it performs a cryptographic operation. By carefully monitoring characteristics such as power consumption, sound, electromagnetic emissions, or the amount of time it takes for an operation to occur, attackers can assemble enough information to recover secret keys that underpin the security and confidentiality of a cryptographic algorithm.

Side-channel exploitation made simple

As Wired reported in 2008, one of the oldest known side channels was in a top-secret encrypted teletype terminal that the US Army and Navy used during World War II to transmit communications that couldn’t be read by German and Japanese spies. To the surprise of the Bell Labs engineers who designed the terminal, it caused readings from a nearby oscilloscope each time an encrypted letter was entered. While the encryption algorithm in the device was sound, the electromagnetic emissions emanating from the device were enough to provide a side channel that leaked the secret key.

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