Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Attack on computer memory reveals vulnerability of widely used security systems

25.02.2008
A team of academic, industry and independent researchers has demonstrated a new class of computer attacks that compromise the contents of “secure” memory systems, particularly in laptops.

The attacks overcome a broad set of security measures called “disk encryption,” which are meant to secure information stored in a computer’s permanent memory. The researchers cracked several widely used technologies, including Microsoft’s BitLocker, Apple’s FileVault and Linux’s dm-crypt, and described the attacks in a paper and video published on the Web Feb. 21.

The team reports that these attacks are likely to be effective at cracking many other disk encryption systems because these technologies have architectural features in common.

“We’ve broken disk encryption products in exactly the case when they seem to be most important these days: laptops that contain sensitive corporate data or personal information about business customers,” said Alex Halderman, a Ph.D. candidate in Princeton’s computer science department. “Unlike many security problems, this isn’t a minor flaw; it is a fundamental limitation in the way these systems were designed.”

The attack is particularly effective against computers that are turned on but are locked, such as laptops that are in a “sleep” or hibernation mode. One effective countermeasure is to turn a computer off entirely, though in some cases even this does not provide protection.

Halderman’s Princeton collaborators included graduate students Nadia Heninger, William Clarkson, Joseph Calandrino, Ariel Feldman and Professor Edward Felten, the director of the Center for Information Technology Policy. The team also included Seth Schoen of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, William Paul of Wind River Systems and independent computer security researcher Jacob Appelbaum.

Felten said the findings demonstrate the risks associated with recent high-profile laptop thefts, including a Veterans Administration computer containing information on 26 million veterans and a University of California, Berkeley laptop that contained information on more than 98,000 graduate students and others. While it is widely believed that disk encryption would protect sensitive information in instances like these, the new research demonstrates that the information could easily be read even when data is encrypted.

“Disk encryption is often recommended as a magic bullet against the loss of private data on laptops,” Felten said. “Our results show that disk encryption provides less protection than previously thought. Even encrypted data can be vulnerable if an intruder gets access to the laptop.”

The new attacks exploit the fact that information stored in a computer’s temporary working memory, or RAM, does not disappear immediately when a computer is shut off or when the memory chip is taken from the machine, as is commonly thought. Under normal circumstances, the data gradually decays over a period of several seconds to a minute. The process can be slowed considerably using simple techniques to cool the chips to low temperatures.

Disk encryption technologies rely on the use of secret keys -- essentially large random numbers -- to encode and protect information. Computers need these keys to access files stored on their own hard disks or other storage systems. Once an authorized user has typed in a password, computers typically store the keys in the temporary RAM so that protected information can be accessed regularly. The keys are meant to disappear as soon as the RAM chips lose power.

The team wrote programs that gained access to essential encryption information automatically after cutting power to machines and rebooting them. The method worked when the attackers had physical access to the computer and when they accessed it remotely over a computer network. The attack even worked when the encryption key had already started to decay, because the researchers were able to reconstruct it from multiple derivative keys that were also stored in memory.

In one extremely powerful version of the attack, they were able to obtain the correct encryption data even when the memory chip was physically removed from one computer and placed in another machine. After obtaining the encryption key, they could then easily access all information on the original machine.

“This method is extremely resistant to countermeasures that defensive programs on the original computer might try to take,” Halderman said.

The attacks demonstrate the vulnerability of machines when they are in an active state, including “sleep mode” or the “screen lock” mode that laptops enter when their covers are shut. Even though the machines require a password to unlock the screen, the encryption keys are already located in the RAM, which provides an opportunity for attackers with malicious intent.

None of the attacks required specialized equipment. “I think we're going to see attackers doing things that people have previously though impractical or impossible,” Appelbaum said.

The researchers were able to extend the life of the information in RAM by cooling it using readily available “canned air” keyboard dusting products. When turned upside down, these canisters spray very cold liquid. Discharging the cold liquid onto a memory chip, the researchers were able to lower the temperature of the memory to -50 degrees Celsius. This slowed the decay rates enough that an attacker who cut power for 10 minutes would still be able to recover 99.9 percent of the information in the RAM correctly.

“Hints of problems associated with computers retaining their temporary memory have appeared in the scientific literature, but this is the first systematic examination of the security implications,” said Schoen.

The researchers posted the paper describing their findings on the website of Princeton’s Center for Information Technology Policy. They submitted the paper for publication and it is currently undergoing review.

In the meantime, the researchers have contacted several manufacturers to make them aware of the vulnerability: Microsoft, which includes BitLocker in some versions of Windows Vista; Apple, which created FileVault; and the makers of dm-crypt and TrueCrypt, which are open-source products for Windows and Linux platforms.

“There’s not much they can do at this point,” Halderman said. “In the short term, they can warn their customers about the vulnerability and tell them to shut their computers down completely when traveling.”

In the longer term, Halderman said new technologies may need to be designed that do not require the storing of encryption keys in the RAM, given its inherent vulnerability. The researchers plan to continue investigating this and other defenses against this new security threat.

Steven Schultz | EurekAlert!
Further information:
http://www.princeton.edu

More articles from Information Technology:

nachricht Smart Computers
21.08.2017 | Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg im Breisgau

nachricht AI implications: Engineer's model lays groundwork for machine-learning device
18.08.2017 | Washington University in St. Louis

All articles from Information Technology >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Fizzy soda water could be key to clean manufacture of flat wonder material: Graphene

Whether you call it effervescent, fizzy, or sparkling, carbonated water is making a comeback as a beverage. Aside from quenching thirst, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have discovered a new use for these "bubbly" concoctions that will have major impact on the manufacturer of the world's thinnest, flattest, and one most useful materials -- graphene.

As graphene's popularity grows as an advanced "wonder" material, the speed and quality at which it can be manufactured will be paramount. With that in mind,...

Im Focus: Exotic quantum states made from light: Physicists create optical “wells” for a super-photon

Physicists at the University of Bonn have managed to create optical hollows and more complex patterns into which the light of a Bose-Einstein condensate flows. The creation of such highly low-loss structures for light is a prerequisite for complex light circuits, such as for quantum information processing for a new generation of computers. The researchers are now presenting their results in the journal Nature Photonics.

Light particles (photons) occur as tiny, indivisible portions. Many thousands of these light portions can be merged to form a single super-photon if they are...

Im Focus: Circular RNA linked to brain function

For the first time, scientists have shown that circular RNA is linked to brain function. When a RNA molecule called Cdr1as was deleted from the genome of mice, the animals had problems filtering out unnecessary information – like patients suffering from neuropsychiatric disorders.

While hundreds of circular RNAs (circRNAs) are abundant in mammalian brains, one big question has remained unanswered: What are they actually good for? In the...

Im Focus: RAVAN CubeSat measures Earth's outgoing energy

An experimental small satellite has successfully collected and delivered data on a key measurement for predicting changes in Earth's climate.

The Radiometer Assessment using Vertically Aligned Nanotubes (RAVAN) CubeSat was launched into low-Earth orbit on Nov. 11, 2016, in order to test new...

Im Focus: Scientists shine new light on the “other high temperature superconductor”

A study led by scientists of the Max Planck Institute for the Structure and Dynamics of Matter (MPSD) at the Center for Free-Electron Laser Science in Hamburg presents evidence of the coexistence of superconductivity and “charge-density-waves” in compounds of the poorly-studied family of bismuthates. This observation opens up new perspectives for a deeper understanding of the phenomenon of high-temperature superconductivity, a topic which is at the core of condensed matter research since more than 30 years. The paper by Nicoletti et al has been published in the PNAS.

Since the beginning of the 20th century, superconductivity had been observed in some metals at temperatures only a few degrees above the absolute zero (minus...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

Call for Papers – ICNFT 2018, 5th International Conference on New Forming Technology

16.08.2017 | Event News

Sustainability is the business model of tomorrow

04.08.2017 | Event News

Clash of Realities 2017: Registration now open. International Conference at TH Köln

26.07.2017 | Event News

 
Latest News

What the world's tiniest 'monster truck' reveals

23.08.2017 | Life Sciences

Treating arthritis with algae

23.08.2017 | Life Sciences

Witnessing turbulent motion in the atmosphere of a distant star

23.08.2017 | Physics and Astronomy

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>