Stealing Encryption Keys from PCs using Software Defined Radio and Unintentional Electromagnetic Emissions

Tel Alviv University researchers D. Genkin, L. Pachmanox, I. Pipman and E. Tromer have released a paper this year detailing their research on extracting encryption keys from PCs via their unintentional radio emissions. They say that they have been able to demonstrate their work by extracting encryption keys from GnuPG on laptops within seconds by using their non-intrusive wireless methods. GnuPG is software which allows you to encrypt and sign your data.

They write about the performance of their results:

Using GnuPG as our study case, we can, on some machines:

  • distinguish between the spectral signatures of different RSA secret keys (signing or decryption), and
  • fully extract decryption keys, by measuring the laptop’s electromagnetic emanations during decryption of a chosen ciphertext.

In their experiments they used a Funcube Dongle Pro+ to measure the unintentional RF emissions coming out of a laptop computer at around 1.6-1.75 MHz, but they also mention that a low cost RTL-SDR with upconverter could also work.

Every time the CPU on a target PC performs a new operation the unintentional frequency signature that is emitted changes. From these emissions they are able to use the unique RF signature to determine what operations are being performed by the CPU, and from that they can work out the operations GnuPG is performing when decrypting data. They write:

Different CPU operations have different power requirements. As different computations are performed during the decryption process, different electrical loads are placed on the voltage regulator that provides the processor with power. The regulator reacts to these varying loads, inadvertently producing electromagnetic radiation that propagates away from the laptop and can be picked up by a nearby observer. This radiation contains information regarding the CPU operations used in the decryption, which we use in our attack.

Recovering CPU assembly operations from its RF emissions.
Recovering CPU assembly code operations from its unintentional RF emissions.

In addition to the above they were also able to create portable attack hardware by connecting the Funcube Dongle Pro+ with a small Android based embedded computer called the Rikomagic MK802 IV. They also show that they were even able to perform the portable attack with a standard AM radio with the output audio being recorded with a smart phone.

A portable version of their attack set up with the Funcube Dongle Pro+ and microcontroller.
A portable version of their attack set up with the Funcube Dongle Pro+ and microcontroller.

The researchers write that they will present their work at the CHES 2015 conference in September 2015.

Previously we also posted about Melissa Elliots talk on unintentional RF emissions, Milos Prvulovic’s work on spying on keyboard presses from unintentional RF emissions and also a security flaw discovered with some HP laptops which caused them to unintentionally convert audio picked up from the microphone into RF signals.

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