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See Inside May 2009

How Hackers Can Steal Secrets from Reflections

Information thieves can now go around encryption, networks and the operating system



JEN CHRISTIANSEN (photoillustration of reflection); DIGITAL VISION/GETTY IMAGES (man with glasses)

Through the eyepiece of Michael Backes’s small Celestron telescope, the 18-point letters on the laptop screen at the end of the hall look nearly as clear as if the notebook computer were on my lap. I do a double take. Not only is the laptop 10 meters (33 feet) down the corridor, it faces away from the telescope. The image that seems so legible is a reflection off a glass teapot on a nearby table. In experiments here at his laboratory at Saarland University in Germany, Backes has discovered that an alarmingly wide range of objects can bounce secrets right off our screens and into an eavesdropper’s camera. Spectacles work just fine, as do coffee cups, plastic bottles, metal jewelry—even, in his most recent work, the eyeballs of the computer user. The mere act of viewing information can give it away.

The reflection of screen images is only one of the many ways in which our computers may leak information through so-called side channels, security holes that bypass the normal encryption and operating-system restrictions we rely on to protect sensitive data. Researchers recently demonstrated five different ways to surreptitiously capture keystrokes, for example, without installing any software on the target computer. Technically sophisticated observers can extract private data by reading the flashing light-emitting diodes (LEDs) on network switches or by scrutinizing the faint radio-frequency waves that every monitor emits. Even certain printers make enough noise to allow for acoustic eavesdropping.

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