Research trio crack RSA encryption keys by listening to computer noise

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Posted December 20, 2013
Research trio crack RSA encryption keys by listening to computer noise
Physical setup of a key recovery attack. A mobile phone (Samsung Note II) is placed 30 cm from a target laptop. The phone’s internal microphone points towards the laptop’s fan vents. Full key extraction is possible in this configuration and distance. Credit: Daniel Genkin et al.
A trio of researchers in Israel has discovered that it is possible to crack 4096-bit RSA encryption keys using a microphone to listen to high-pitch noises generated by internal computer components. Adi Shamir (co-inventor of RSA), Daniel Genkin and Eran Tromer have published a research paper describing the technique on a Tel Aviv University server.

Computers make noises, the researchers explain, far beyond the whirring of the fan. The CPU, for example, emits a high pitched noise as it operates, fluctuating depending on which operations it is performing—other components do likewise. Suspecting that they might be able to exploit this characteristic of computers, the researchers set about creating software to interpret noise data obtained using simple microphones and very little other equipment. They also focused exclusively on trying to achieve one single feat: deciphering an RSA encryption key. After much trial and effort, the researchers found it could be done without much effort.

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