Teacups Turned Into Hacking Tools

By JR Raphael
Contributing Writer, [GAS]

Engineers are putting a high-tech spin on some old-fashioned items.

Researchers at UC Santa Barbara and Germany’s Saarland University have found ways to use cameras and telescopes to transform everyday objects into data hacking devices. It seems simple, but it’s actually a pretty complex process.

The first concept uses standard web cams to watch someone’s fingers moving across his keyboard. UC Santa Barbara engineers created special software called Clear Shot that then translates those movements into words.

“One of the most effective ways to protect electronic communication is the use of cryptography-based mechanisms,” the UCSB study reads.

“However, encrypting the communication does not help in protecting one’s physical environment. … Our goal was to recover all the information entered by the user through the keyboard.”

The systems proved to be not entirely foolproof, but accurate enough to get a fairly good idea of what any given person was typing.

Now enter phase two: the telescopes. The scientists from Saarland found they could aim the scopes at anything from glasses to spoons or even an eyeball and catch a reflection from a nearby computer screen. They could then read text on the screen and see what the computer’s user was doing.

“Our work … exploits the visual emanation of the screen itself … in combination with everyday objects that are located in close proximity to the screen,” the study reads.

A Saarland professor tells Network World the idea came to him during lunch one day, when he suddenly noticed all the window reflections around campus.

“It started as a fun project,” he says in Network World’s report.

“We thought it would be kind of cute if we could look at what these people are working on.”

The professor goes on to explain that he found with a $500 telescope, he could read text in a 12 point font from up to 16 feet away by looking at a reflection in a teapot. A more expensive telescope, he says, allowed him to accomplish the same thing from six times the distance.

“If you place a sphere close by, you will always see the monitor,” he tells Network World. “You don’t have to be lucky.”

The researchers are working on further improving the technology. They also say they’ve pitched the concepts to at least one government agency.

Of course, protecting yourself from these attacks isn’t too tough. The UCSB team even details it in their research:

“Even though the automatic recognition of the keys pressed by a person based on video information only is a very complex and challenging task, preventing this attack is easy,” they write.

“The obvious solution is to place some kind of physical shield over the keyboard so that the keys can be seen only by the typist. This technique is sometimes used to protect keypads used to enter PINs at ATMs and POSs. However, this type of protections are not widely used for computer keyboards.”

I smell a million dollar idea waiting to be claimed.

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