It sounds rather science fiction, the idea of taking data from a computer that is not connected to the Internet and has no wireless connectivity what so ever. Though, while a system that is completely untethered from the internet or any wireless connections is impenetrable, hackers have allegedly found a way to steal data by use of a computer’s Cooling fans.
An air-gapped computer is one that is not connected to the internet. Hackers have found a method to infiltrate an air-gapped computer and steal information through the sound that a system’s cooling fans and processor make.
Researchers from the Ben Gurion University in Israel have uncovered findings in a new paper about how they can collect data from an air-gapped computer. What the group did to retrieve data on such a computer is listen to the speed of the computer’s cooling fans and CPU. The sound data gathered can then be translated into Morse Code up to a distance of eight meters and a smartphone or listening device could pick up the signals and turn it into usable data.
Before mass hysteria takes place in the discovery of this information, there are caveats to the whole case collecting data on an air-gapped computer through sounds waves of its cooling fans and CPU. In order to work, there must be malware installed on the computer more than likely done by using an external storage device, such as a USB thumb drive. After the malicious software is installed, the system will then control the speeds of its cooling fans and acoustics from the CPU to emit Morse code and stops that can be easily picked up by a listening device.
Morse code, even though it is still used today in some limited capacities, is very limited in the amount of data it can transmit. In reality, the speed of transferring data through Morse code equates to about 900 bits per hour. However, the data sent through Morse code may be just enough to send passwords or personal details about a victimized computer user. In fact, the purpose of transmitting data from the acoustics of an air-gapped computer’s cooling fans and CPU would allegedly be the sole purpose of conducting such bizarre acts.
Currently, there aren’t any verified cases of data being stolen from an air-gapped computer. The idea, while it can legitimately be done, remains to be somewhat improbable. Though, we wouldn’t put anything past hackers as they thrive on creative methods for stealing data from unsuspecting computer users. Who knows, hacking air-gapped computer out of thin air could be a thing in the near future.