Hacking air gapped networks by using lasers and drones

Pierluigi Paganini October 25, 2014

A group of Israeli researchers has demonstrated at the last Black Hat Conference how to hack air gapped networks by using lasers and drones.

A lot of people believe that it is possible to secure a computer keeping it off, security specialists define a network separated by the Internet, or by any other unsecure networks, as “Air gapped network”.

Unfortunately also Air gapped networks could be hacked with different techniques, a threat actor could use a USB to compromise it (i.e. as happened for the Stuxnet infection in Iranian nuclear facility of Natanz) or, as revealed by Edward Snowden, using radar weaves and sophisticated equipment.

Intelligence agencies work for a long time to technologies that are able to remotely hack air gapped networks with the intent to syphon data from targeted systems.

A group of top Israeli cryptographers, Adi Shamir, Yuval Elovici, and Moti Guri, have recently explained how it is possible to use an all-in-one printer, complete with a built-in scanner,to infiltrate an air-gapped network, or a system, and steal sensitive data.

In the Stuxnet case, the attackers initially spread the Stuxnet virus using a USB stick, once infected the target, they had no opportunity to control the malicious agent due to the impossibility to communicate with it.

The new research conducted by the experts has demonstrated that it is possible to overwhelm this limitation controlling the malware with a long-distance laser which could be installed on a drone.

The research presented their research at the last Black Hat Europe hacking, they focused their analysis on the exploitation of an HP Officejet Pro 8500 printer, but as they explained the attack could be extended to other devices.

The team used a blue laser that blinks malware in binary code, the data were sent by the researchers from a distance greater than 1 kilometer away, and according the experts the range could reach as high as 5 kilometers.

The printer’s scanner inside the network works as a bridge, it is used to read that code and convert it in instructions that are sent within the network to the malware. The syphoned data could be sent back to the attacker with the same scanner that has read the code, it could transform data in blinks of light which is captured by a small drone equipped with a video camera.

air gapped network malware 2

According to the researchers it is possible to record the light representing the data from a height of 100 meters.

This is not the first time that a group of researcher demonstrated how to infect machine in air gapped networks,early 2014 experts at Ben Gurion University presented a study on the air-gap network hacking, which allows an attacker to inoculate a specific strain of malware into a cellphone and use the mobile device as an attack vector to hit computer in the vicinity. The news was spread by the Time of Israel website, the attack scenario proposed is disconcerting, a hackers from any place on the planet could use cellphone-based malware to remotely access any data stored in a targeted system, this is possible exploiting the electromagnetic waves emanating from computers even is it is isolated from the Internet.

Also US intelligence has already explored this type of attack technique, the NSA program known as TEMPEST makes use of special devices to syphon data from computers and servers via leaking emanations, including unintentional radio or electrical signals and vibrations from targeted hardware (e.g. Monitors, memory chips, keyboards, network cards and connection cables). Documents leaked by Edward Snowden refers a set of components designed by the NSA to spy on computer screens, fax/printers, audio devices and keyboards, by not even having to install an agent on the target machine, the systems are based on continuous wave irradiation. The tools belong to the ANGRYNEIGHBOR family of bugs. The series of bugs implemented as RF retro reflectors communicate with the use of an external radar wave generator such as CTX4000 or PHOTOANGLO.

In December 2013, German researchers demonstrated how a malware can infect systems in air gapped networks and transfer stolen data using Inaudible Audio signals.

We have a certainty, air gapped networks are not as secure as you think.

Pierluigi Paganini

(Security Affairs –air gapped networks,Intelligence)

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