A potential security attack has just been revealed by researchers, and while it is difficult to implement, it has the potential to put some of the world’s most sensitive data at risk.
The hack called “SATAn” turns a typical SATA cable into a wireless transmitter. This allows data to be transferred even from devices that do not allow it at all.
As data protection measures become more advanced and the frequency of cyber attacks increases, researchers and malicious attackers alike are reaching new heights of creativity in discovering potential software and hardware flaws. Dr. Mordechai Guri of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel has just published new findings that once again show us that even air-gap systems are not completely safe.
An isolated system or network is completely isolated from any and all connections to the rest of the world. This means no networking, no internet connections, no bluetooth – no connectivity. The systems are intentionally designed without any hardware that can communicate wirelessly, all in an effort to keep them safe from various cyberattacks. All of these security measures are in place for one reason: to protect the world’s most vulnerable and sensitive data.
Hacking into these obstructed systems is very difficult and often requires direct access in order to implant malware. Removable media, such as USB stealing tools, can also be used. Dr. Gorey has now found another way to breach the security of the obstructed system. SATAn relies on the use of a SATA connection, which is widely used in countless devices across the world, in order to infiltrate the target system and steal its data.
With this technology, Dr. Guri was able to turn a SATA cable into a wireless transmitter and send it to a personal laptop located less than one meter away. This can be done without making any physical modifications to the cable itself or to the rest of the target devices. Feel free to dive into the paper penned by Dr. Gorey (first spotted by Tom’s Hardware) if you want to learn the ins and outs of this technique.
In a quick summary of how SATAn is able to extract data from seemingly ultra-secure systems, it all comes down to handling electromagnetic interference from the SATA bus. Through it, the data can be transferred to another location. The researcher tampered with this and used a SATA cable as a temporary wireless antenna operating on the 6 GHz frequency band. In the video shown above, Dr. Gauri managed to steal a message from the target computer and then display it on his laptop.
“The receiver monitors the 6 GHz spectrum for potential transmission, demodulates the data, decodes it, and sends it to the attacker,” the researcher said in his paper.
The attack can only be carried out if the target device has malware pre-installed on it. This, of course, reduces risk levels – but not by much, as USB devices can be used for this. Without it, the attacker would need physical access to the system to implant the malware before attempting to steal data through SATAn.
At the end of the paper, Dr. Gorey detailed some of the ways in which this type of attack can be mitigated, such as implementing internal policies that strengthen defenses and prevent the initial penetration of an air-locked system. Bringing prohibited radio receivers inside facilities where such highly confidential data is stored seems to be a reasonable step for the time being. It is also recommended to add an electromagnetic shield to the device case, or even the SATA cable itself.
This attack is definitely scary, but we probably don’t have to worry. Given the complexity of the attack, it’s only worth a high stakes game with nationwide secrets as the goal. On the other hand, for those installations and their pneumatic systems, alarm bells should ring – it’s time to tighten security.
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