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Side-Channel Attacks

May 23, 2016

I used a cathode ray tube (CRT) monitor on more than one computer five years ago. The switch to flat panel displays for my desktop computing happened about a decade ago; but, since many laboratory instruments are seldom used, their change of monitors happened more slowly. My early computer readouts were from octal LED displays and Impact printers, but CRTs were a de facto output device after the emergence of personal computing in the late 1970s (Apple II) and the early 1980s (IBM Personal Computer). My first CRT was a small, amber phosphor, monochrome device attached to my homebrew S-100-CP/M system.

While nearly every CRT in existence has now been recycled, everyone doing computer work had been using a CRT for several decades. All of these were based on the raster scan principle used in television receivers in which an electron beam "paints" an image on a phosphor screen by scanning a line from left to right while moving slightly down, zipping back to the right, and repeating until the screen is filled. The NTSC standard had 525 lines, interlaced with odd and even lines sent on alternating frames at a 60 Hz refresh rate. The interlace was to prevent image flicker arising from the relatively slow refresh rate.

While special viewing screen attachments were available to prevent visual eavesdropping on what you were doing (can't let the manager see that you're playing video games!), everyone was sure that their computing was private in those days before networks and the Internet. As it turned out, the regularity of the raster signal and the way that it was implemented on CRTs allowed an easy means of electronically recreating the image on any screen at a distance through use of some inexpensive circuitry.

A cathode ray tube (CRT) with its deflection coils and electron gun highlighted

A 14-inch cathode ray tube (CRT) with its deflection coils and electron gun highlighted

The electron beam has a power of about 1 watt, while the magnetic deflection coils consume tens of watts.

(Modified Wikimedia Commons image.)

Dutch computer scientist, Wim van Eck, whose original specialty was bioengineering, published a technique for doing what's now called van Eck phreaking in 1985.[1] Such a vulnerability had been known to governments since World War II, when the target had been teleprinters, not computers. In 1982, the US government had implemented a standard, called Tempest, to make computer equipment immune to this technique. Van Eck had made the problem public to both hackers and concerned users alike. Van Eck phreaking is a plot element in my novel, Mother Wode.

Van Eck phreaking is an example of a side-channel attack in which information about a computing device is inferred through measurement of some property. As a recent example, some television and movie plots have as a plot device thermal imaging of security keypads to determine which keys were recently pressed by warm fingers to thereby discover the access code.

Van Eck phreaking wasn't the only side-channel vulnerability in early computer systems. Light-emitting diodes designed to show data activity on modems were often wired directly to the data line. In such cases, the light was modulated by the data stream, and an optical system would allow the data to be reconstructed. Early wireless keyboards used a simple form of encryption that was easily broken to reveal what you're typing through use of a radio receiver.

Portion of a worn computer keyboard

An unlikely side-channel attack, as noted by science fiction author Neal Stephenson in his novel, Cryptonomicon, is looking at the wear pattern of keys on a keyboard. Unless the keyboard is used exclusively for typing of a password, this will likely just give the frequency of letter use of the language. In the portion of one of my keyboards shown above, you see that the key for the letter T is completely worn, and there's considerable wear on other letter keys. The letter T is the second most used letter (9.1%) in English. The first is the letter E (12.7%), which doesn't appear to be worn, somewhat invalidating this side-channel attack. (Photo by author.)

Your keyboard need not be wireless to leak information. Since different keys make slightly different sounds when pressed, an audio side-channel attack is possible. An easy method of defeating such an attack is to mask the sounds with white noise. Audio susceptible to side-channel attack might come from unusual sources. Multilayer ceramic capacitors typically use barium titanate (BaTiO3) and other ferroelectric materials as dielectrics because of their large dielectric constant.

These ferroelectric materials are also piezoelectric, which means that they will emit sound when the applied voltage is changed. While the sound emitted by a capacitor is small, the circuit board to which it's mounted will act as a loudspeaker diaphragm to increase the sound intensity. This "singing capacitor" effect has been addressed by at least one manufacturer.[2]

Impact printers, in which characters were stamped onto paper much the way that typewriters had always done, were prevalent in the early days of computing. One computer system with which I worked used a modified version of the popular Selectric typewriter as a printing terminal device, the IBM 2741 printing computer terminal. It's easy to see how audio from such printers could be decoded in a side-channel attack. Modern inkjet printers emit less audio, but a surreptitious microphone, hidden in an ink cartridge, could allow a side-channel attack.

IBM Selectric typeball

A typeball from an IBM Selectric typewriter.

The IBM Selectric was an ingenious electromechanical typewriter that converted keypresses into pitch and rotation of a ball of type. These typeballs were interchangeable, which allowed a method to type mathematical symbols.

(Via Wikimedia Commons.)

Document printers aren't the only printers used in modern development laboratories. 3-D printers are now used to make product prototypes. Mara Hvistendahl reported on the research of Mohammad Abdullah Al Faruque, a professor at the University of California Irvine, and his students on side-channel attacks on such printers.[3] The Irvine research team has presented its research at the 2016 Network and Distributed System Security Symposium (February, 2016),[4] and the 2016 ACM/IEEE International Conference on Cyber-Physical Systems (Vienna, Austria, April, 2016).[5-6]

Nearly every 3-D printer uses stepper motors for positioning; and, as any user of stepper motors knows, these motors produce a lot of audio frequency sound. In fact, the stepper motors on various devices, including computer disk drives, can play music, as demonstrated on several YouTube videos.[7-10] Says Al Faruque, "Industries spend millions of dollars to create IP (intellectual property), and you can basically steal it by listening to the machine."[3]

The research team printed geometrical objects and a simplified house key using a Printrbot 3D printer.[5] By recording the machine sounds at a distance of 30 cm and using audio analysis software, they were able to reproduce the source code for the key to about 92% accuracy.[3] While the microphone placement for this exercise was near ideal, advanced techniques might make such a side-channel attack possible using a smartphone for audio detection.[3]

Printrbot 3D printer

The Printrbot 3D printer.

The stepper motors for print head movement in the X and Z axes can be seen. Another motor drives the platen in the Y direction.

(Photograph by Creative Tools, Halmdstad, Sweden, via Wikimedia Commons.)

While this side-channel attack reveals geometrical information, it doesn't access the printer's other parameters, such as temperature and the materials used. Just as for other audio side-channel attacks, interjection of white noise or random stepper motor noise is a good countermeasure.


  1. Wim van Eck, "Electromagnetic radiation from video display units: An eavesdropping risk?" Computers & Security, vol. 4, no. 4 (December, 1985), pp. 269-286. A PDF file of this paper appears here.
  2. Mark Laps, Roy Grace, Bill Sloka, John Prymak, Xilin Xu, Pascal Pinceloup, Abhijit Gurav, Michael Randall, Philip Lessner, and Aziz Tajuddin, "Capacitors for Reduced Microphonics and Sound Emission," Electronic Components, Assemblies & Materials Association, CARTS 2007 Symposium Proceedings (Albuquerque, New Mexico, March, 2007).
  3. Mara Hvistendahl, "3D printers vulnerable to spying," Science, vol. 352, no. 6282 (April 8, 2016), pp. 132-133, DOI: 10.1126/science.352.6282.132.
  4. S. R. Chhetri, A. Canedo, and M. A. Al Faruque, "Poster: Exploiting Acoustic Side-Channel for Attack on Additive Manufacturing Systems", 2016 Network and Distributed System Security Symposium (February, 2016).
  5. M. A. Al Faruque, S. Chhetri, A. Canedo, J. Wan, "Acoustic Side-Channel Attacks on Additive Manufacturing Systems", 2016 ACM/IEEE International Conference on Cyber-Physical Systems (Vienna, Austria, April, 2016).
  6. Acoustic Side Channel Attack - Additive Manufacturing (3D-Printer), YouTube Video, January 5, 2016.
  7. Star Wars - Imperial March on Eight Floppy Drives, YouTube Video by MrSolidSnake, October 16, 2014.
  8. Stepmotor Super Mario Brothers, YouTube Video by Sam Buls, August 31, 2010.
  9. Toccata and Fugue in D Minor (On Floppy Drive Organ), YouTube Video by Sammy1Am, August 4, 2013.
  10. Imperial March on a CNC-Machine - Imperial March played on a Synchronous motor, YouTube Video by Dadido3, April 13, 2011.

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