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Stealing data from PCs using the HDD activity LED light

Posted on Friday, February 24 2017 @ 16:21:00 CET by

Over the last couple of years, cybersecurity researchers from Israel's Ben-Gurion University have shown off several unique ways to steal data from airgapped computers. First they invented a method to capture data from a PC using FM radio waves generated by the computer's screen, then they came up with a way to transmit data via fans, showed how to wirelessly transmit data via an USB bus and demonstrated how to record audio via headphones.

Now the university came up with a method to transmit data via HDD activity LEDs. Once a computer is infected, it's possibly to control the HDD LED to transmit data in a Morse code like fashion. This rapid flickering can then be picked up by a remote camera or light sensor:
Researchers at BGU's Cyber Security Research Center have demonstrated that data can be stolen from an isolated "air-gapped" computer's hard drive reading the pulses of light on the LED drive using various types of cameras and light sensors.

In the new paper, the researchers demonstrated how data can be received by a Quadcopter drone flight, even outside a window with line-of-sight of the transmitting computer.

Air-gapped computers are isolated -- separated both logically and physically from public networks -- ostensibly so that they cannot be hacked over the Internet or within company networks. These computers typically contain an organization's most sensitive and confidential information.

Led by Dr. Mordechai Guri, Head of R&D at the Cyber Security Research Center, the research team utilized the hard-drive (HDD) activity LED lights that are found on most desktop PCs and laptops. The researchers found that once malware is on a computer, it can indirectly control the HDD LED, turning it on and off rapidly (thousands of flickers per second) -- a rate that exceeds the human visual perception capabilities. As a result, highly sensitive information can be encoded and leaked over the fast LED signals, which are received and recorded by remote cameras or light sensors.

"Our method compared to other LED exfiltration is unique, because it is also covert," Dr. Guri says. "The hard drive LED flickers frequently, and therefore the user won't be suspicious about changes in its activity."
In the video clip below, they demonstrate the concept using a drone that establishes a line-of-sight with an infected computer. The practical applications are probably low but it's certainly a neat concept.



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