Researchers have hit on novel ways of stealing data using everyday objects such as teapots and cameras. We talk to two researchers about how fiction reminiscent of a James Bond film is becoming reality
The researchers came up with this idea during a lunchtime walk about nine months ago, said Michael Backes, a professor at Saarland's computer science department. Noticing that there were a lot of computers to be seen in campus windows, the researchers got to thinking. "It started as a fun project," he said. "We thought it would be kind of cute if we could look at what these people are working on."
It turned out that they could get some amazingly clear pictures. All it took was a £250 telescope trained on a reflective object in front of the monitor. For example, a teapot yielded readable images of 12 point Word documents from a distance of 5m. From 10m, they were able to read 18 point fonts. With a £14,000 Dobson telescope, they could get the same quality of images at 30m.
Backes said he's already demoed his work for a government agency, one that he declined to name. "It was convincing to these people," he said.
That's because even though the reflections are tiny, the images are much clearer than people expect. Often, first time viewers think they're looking at the computer screen itself rather than a reflection, Backes said.
One of his favourite targets is a round teapot. Looking at a spoon or a pair of glasses, you might not get a good view of the monitor, but a spherical teapot makes a perfect target. "If you place a sphere close by, you will always see the monitor," he said. "This helps; you don't have to be lucky."
The Saarland researchers are now working out new image analysis algorithms and training astronomical cameras on their subjects in hopes of getting better images from even more difficult surfaces such as the human eye. They've even aimed their telescopes and cameras at a white wall and have picked up readable reflections from a monitor 2m from the wall.
Does Backes think that we should really be concerned about this kind of high tech snooping? Maybe, just because it's so cheap and easy to do. He said he could see some people shelling out the £250 for a telescope just to try it out on their neighbours.
So how to protect yourself from the telescopic snooper? Easy. "Closing your curtains is maybe the best thing you can do," he said.
- Researchers utilise everyday objects in a bid to steal data
- How a rounded teapot is a hacker's perfect aide