Science Gazette

Laser light assaults on computers are a new kind of cyber-threat

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Even if a computer system is physically separated from the outside world (air-gapped), it may be hacked. IT security professionals have proved this. They demonstrate how a guided laser may transport data to light-emitting diodes in common office gadgets. As a result, attackers may connect discreetly with air-gapped computer systems across several meters. Critical IT systems must be safeguarded visually in addition to traditional information and communication technology security.

Even if a computer system is physically separated from the outside world (air-gapped), it may be hacked. In the LaserShark project, IT security specialists from the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) illustrate this. They demonstrate how a guided laser may transport data to light-emitting diodes in common office gadgets. As a result, attackers may connect discreetly with air-gapped computer systems across several meters. Critical IT systems must be safeguarded visually in addition to traditional information and communication technology security.

Lasers are used by hackers to assault computers. This seems like something out of a recent James Bond film, but it’s truly doable. The LaserShark attack was presented at the 37th Annual Computer Security Applications Conference in early December 2021 by researchers from KIT, TU Braunschweig, and TU Berlin (ACSAC). This study focuses on the use of optical channels for covert communication. To prevent external access, critical infrastructure computers and networks are often physically segregated. These systems are “air-gapped,” which implies they have no wired or wireless access to the outside world. Attempts to circumvent such security via electromagnetic, acoustic, or optical channels have only worked over short distances or at low data speeds in the past. Furthermore, they typically enable just data exfiltration, i.e. data receiving.

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LEDs are used in commercially available office devices using the Hidden Optical Channel

In collaboration with researchers from TU Braunschweig and TU Berlin, the Intelligent System Security Group at KASTEL — Institute of Information Security and Dependability of KIT has shown a novel attack: An adversary may use a focused laser beam to inject data into air-gapped systems and recover data without having to install extra hardware on the targeted device. Professor Christian Wressnegger, Head of KASTEL’s Intelligent System Security Group, says, “This concealed optical communication employs light-emitting diodes already built into office gadgets, for example, to show status messages on printers or telephones.” Although not meant to do so, light-emitting diodes (LEDs) may receive light.

Data is exchanged in both directions

The researchers construct a secret communication link over a distance of up to 25 meters by directing laser light to previously mounted LEDs and monitoring their responses (in both directions). Data speeds of 18.2 kilobits per second inwards and 100 kilobits per second outwards are achieved. This optical attack may be carried out on commercially accessible office gadgets utilized by businesses, colleges, and government agencies. “The LaserShark project shows how crucial it is to safeguard key IT systems optically in addition to traditional information and communication technology security measures,” says Christian Wressnegger.

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