Daily Management Review

Laptops and Smartphones Tells About your Actions Translating Noise and Signals


Laptops and smartphones not even connected to the Wi-Fi may tell about your actions to attackers without your knowledge. The reasons are the weak signals and noise that produce gadgets familiar to us.

Sitting in a cafe with a laptop or starting dig into your smartphone in the subway in any strange situation, you cannot be sure that your actions are not visible to hackers. Criminals can find out which letters you type and what actions you take, simply by analyzing low-power electrical signals that radiate into space around your gadget.

And most importantly - it is not necessarily for your device to be connected to the internet by Wi-Fi.

Engineers from Georgia Institute of Technology came to this conclusion starting exploring the weak signals that produce gadgets familiar to us. Exploring the electromagnetic pulses with special sensors, the scientists are trying to find out what exactly the electronic elements create the so-called leakage outside channels and, knowing this, develop a protection system. "People are focused on security in the Internet and wireless communication, but we are concerned about what we can learn from your computer, even if it purposely send nothing, - explains Alenka Zayich, a senior lecturer of the institute. - Even if you are disconnected from the Internet, you will continue to distribute information that someone could use to attack your computer or smart phone."

The study, which was funded by the National Science Foundation (USA), were presented at the 47th International Symposium in Cambridge. The signals on the sides of the channels can be measured in several meters from the emitting device using a whole set of different spy stuff. Electromagnetic pulses can be captured using antennas, hidden, for example, in a briefcase.

The sound vibrations that are produced by capacitors inside each device can be caught using a microphone under the table.

It turned out that such electronic computer components as voltage regulators create electromagnetic radiation, which carries information about the operation of other components. As a demonstration, Zayich showed an experiment. Sitting in one part of the room, she dials a random password on the computer not connected to the Internet.

Her colleague sitting at the other edge of the wall, reading the password on another laptop, intercepting signals sent by pressing the keys.

So far open sources had no information on the use of third-party hackers channels, however, according to the researchers, it is just a matter of time. Long time people have been buzzing about the risk of such leaks, but Zayich’s team first managed to prove experimentally the existing threats. "Of course, it is likely that someone is using it right now, they just do not talk about it" - says Zayich. To better assess the threat, scientists are trying to pinpoint the location of sources of leaks. "We are trying to understand why there are these third-party channels and what can be done to deal with them. We are studying computers and smart phones, to identify places where leaks occur. This information will enable them to reconstruct the architecture so as to change their behavior, "- says the researcher.