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The James Bond-style methods that help hackers

Researchers utilise everyday objects in a bid to steal data

When it comes to hacking tools, you can’t but imagine its always very sophisticated bits of kit. However, researchers have identified two ways of stealing data using some unlikely everyday tools including cameras and telescopes.

In methods reminiscent of those James Bond might use researchers at Saarland University in Germany managed to read computer screens from their tiny reflections on everyday objects such as glasses, teapots, and even the human eye. Meanwhile researchers at the University of California worked out a way to analyse a video of hands typing on a keyboard to guess what was being written.

Computer security research tends to focus on the software and hardware inside the PC, but this kind of 'side-channel' research, which dates back at least 45 years, looks at the physical environment. Side-channel work in the US was kicked off in 1962 when the US National Security Agency discovered strange surveillance equipment in the concrete ceiling of a US Department of State communications room in Japan and began studying how radiation emitted by communication components could be intercepted.

Much of this work has been top secret, such as the NSA's Tempest program. But side-channel hacking has been in the public eye too.

In fact, if you've seen the movie 'Sneakers' then the University of California's work will have a familiar ring. That's because a minor plot point in this 1992 Robert Redford film about a group of security geeks was the inspiration for their work.

In the movie, Redford's character, Marty Bishop, tries to steal a password by watching video of his victim, mathematician Gunter Janek, as he enters his password into a computer. "Oh, this is good," Redford says, "He's going to type in his password and we're going to get a clear shot"

Redford's character never does get his password, but the UC researchers' Clear Shot tool may give others a fighting chance, according to Marco Cova, a graduate student at the school.

Clear Shot can analyse video of hand movements on a computer keyboard and transcribe them into text. It's far from perfect, Cova says the software is accurate about 40 percent of the time, but it's good enough for someone to get the gist of what was being typed.

The software also suggests alternative words that may have been typed and more often then not the real word is in the top five suggestions provided by Clear Shot, Cova said.

Clear Shot works with an everyday webcam, but the Saarland University team has taken things up a notch, training telescopes on a variety of targets that just might happen to catch a computer monitor's reflection: teapots, glasses, bottles, spoons and even the human eye.

NEXT PAGE: How a rounded teapot is a hacker's perfect aide

  1. Researchers utilise everyday objects in a bid to steal data
  2. How a rounded teapot is a hacker's perfect aide

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