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USB ports that can send confidential user data to RF transmitters

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August 31, 2016

A computer internet security researcher based in Israel, Mordechai Guri has been credited for a whitehat technique to extract information from air-gapped PCs, in an effort to better protect the IT community.

In case you didn't know, radio frequency (RF) transmissions from USB 2 connections can be hacked into in some cases, and without the user noticing anything.

Indentified as USBee, the whitehat technique turns a computer's USB ports into mini RF transmitters by modulating the data fed at high speed to plugged-in devices.

By sending multiple strings of '0' bits to a USB port, the voltage changes in the interface generate detectable emissions between 240 MHz and 480 MHz, according to Guri, a fact that has been proven by an outside source that wishes to remain anonymous.

Next, by writing sequences of '0' and '1', you can potentially create a RF carrier wave from the rapid voltage 'state changes' (0 and 1, 0 and 1, etc, etc.) on the interface's data pins.

You can then use binary frequency shift keying to encode useful information into the RF wave if you wish.

The technique is clever, and obviously Guri knows a lot about RF. He added you can beam about 80 bytes per second over the air using this technique, which is fast enough to send a 4,096-bit crypto key to a nearby receiver in less than ten seconds on an average PC.

You then write the resulting buffer to a mounted removable storage device to generate the signal. Worse: you don't need to be root or an administrator to do this-- you just need permission to write to a file on the device.

"The actual data transmission is done by writing the byte pattern generated by fill_buffer_freq() to an arbitrary data block or stream in the USB device," Guri asserted.

"The transmission process itself doesn't require special privileges either. It only requires permission to create a file on the removable device," he added.

In a video, Guri's security team demonstrated how the information can be easily picked up by a laptop or PC with just a $25 radio antenna from around fifteen feet away.

That's surely enough to spy on someone working on a restaurant bench, in the next hotel room, or in a crowded modern office cubicle.

To say the least, it's an interesting whitehat technique and one that could have some utility. Of course, to pull this off, you first have to get malware onto the air-gapped computer that then writes to a USB device, and you then have to be nearby to pick up the RF signal (and hope no one notices!).

Source: Mordechai Guri.

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Read the latest IT news. Visit ItDirection.net. Updated several times daily.

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