It seems USB is not as secure as previously thought. New research shows that USB connections are vulnerable to data leakage. The study, run by University of Adelaide researchers, demonstrated over 90% of 50 tested external USB devices are at risk. The researchers collected this leaked data remotely. In other words, they did not intercept data directly from the USB connection. Instead, they gathered information through a modified USB lamp placed adjacent to the target device. Furthermore, the snooping device transmitted the stolen data to another computer.
Dr Yuval Yarom, a Research Associate with the University of Adelaide’s School of Computer Science, compares the process to leaking water pipes. Data becomes vulnerable to “channel-to-channel crosstalk leakage.” He explains:
“Electricity flows like water along pipes – and it can leak out.”
Yarom led the research in collaboration with student Yang Su, Dr. Daniel Genkin from the University of Pennsylvania, and University of Maryland, and Dr. Damith Ranasinghe of University of Adelaide’s Auto-ID Lab. The team measured voltage fluctuations from USB port data lines through an adjacent port in a USB hub. The adjacent USB lamp read keystrokes through the leaky connection. Finally, the snooping device transferred the data to another computer via Bluetooth.
Until now, researchers USB connections considered safe from such leakage. However, these tests demonstrate a worrying vulnerability with USB connections. Dr Yarom explains:
“USB-connected devices include keyboards, cardswipers and fingerprint readers which often send sensitive information to the computer.
It has been thought that because that information is only sent along the direct communication path to the computer, it is protected from potentially compromised devices.
But our research showed that if a malicious device or one that’s been tampered with is plugged into adjacent ports on the same external or internal USB hub, this sensitive information can be captured. That means keystrokes showing passwords or other private information can be easily stolen.”
The results prove that USB requires new security standards, Dr Yarom asserts:
“The main take-home message is that people should not connect anything to USB unless they can fully trust it. For users it usually means not to connect to other people’s devices.”
The team from the University of Adelaide will present the results at this year’s USENIX security symposium in Canada.
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