Keeping Ahead of New Hacker Techniques

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In the effort to thwart cyber-criminals from stealing sensitive data, understanding how the enemy works is half the battle, says Rick Delgado

While hackers’ goals have remained largely the same, the methods they employ have evolved with technology. A number of techniques – social engineering attacks, malicious mobile apps, and phishing scams – have become fairly common. Truly alarming, however, are the techniques cyber-criminals are developing that go beyond the traditional hacking methods, taking existing practices a step further.

Cyber-criminals view smartphones as the perfect gateway to gaining corporate data, especially in the age of BYOD. Now, many organizations are using wireless network extenders to expand cell coverage in areas where coverage is spotty. The problem is that hackers have figured out how to use the wireless network extenders to steal data sent between them and the smartphones.

To combat this and other forms of cybercrime, many organizations have adopted air-gap networks, which essentially work by storing the most sensitive data on computers and systems that have no connection to the internet. Sounds pretty much like the perfect defense, right?

Actually, techniques have been devised where data can be stolen, even if the computer has no internet connection. One method involves reading electromagnetic radiation. Hackers with the right electronic eavesdropping skills can pick up on the tiny signals given off from activities performed on computers. Some of these signals come from harmless actions such as keystrokes. From there, it’s easy to see how a cyber-criminal could steal vital information such as passwords. This type of eavesdropping doesn’t require sophisticated equipment; researchers did it using only a cellphone and an AM radio.

There may be other ways to steal data from air-gapped computers. One method involves retrieving data through heat emissions that computers give off, along with the device’s thermal sensors. Though the amount of data stolen using this technique is small, it’s enough to steal passwords and security keys. Since air-gapped computers usually contain confidential information, any amount would be considered worth it for hackers.

The same technique can be used to send messages through heat emissions to computers. However, both devices involved would need to be infected with malware first, with one of them needing an internet connection, and those devices usually have to be close in proximity to each other. But considering the growth of the number of internet-connected devices in the internet of things, this may be a very real possibility in the near future. This type of attack may also be carried out by using acoustic inaudible channels and optical channels.

As alarming as these techniques are, it’s important to understand that many of them have only been conducted in tightly controlled environments by researchers and scientists. That doesn’t mean hackers won’t somehow figure out ways to use such methods eventually, if they’re not already using them secretly. Much like it was for the traditional hacking techniques, it’s important to know how these new attacks work and to prepare now to protect against them. If organizations want to stay one step ahead of cyber-criminals, finding out about these new ways hackers may steal data is crucial to any defensive strategy.

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