Hackers can turn computer cables into antenna to steal sensitive data

Computers are sometimes kept disconnected from the internet, or “air gapped”, to avoid remote hackers gaining access to steal data, but now there is a way to use a hard drive cable to transmit information via radio waves


26 July 2022

SATA cable

SATA cables are found in most computers

Shutterstock/Nor Gal

Hackers can covertly turn a cable inside a computer into a makeshift antenna that can secretly transmit sensitive data, even from “air-gapped” devices that are deliberately not connected to the internet.

Air-gapped computers are commonly used by government security services and key infrastructure control systems to prevent remote hackers from gaining access, but that doesn’t mean it is impossible to get data out.

Mordechai Guri at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Israel, has worked for years to develop a series of proof of concept attacks that use different components within computers as unusual transmitters. In the past he has managed to extract information by encoding it in rapid adjustments of screen brightness, deliberate temperature changes within a machine or flickering power LEDs.

Guri’s latest attack focuses on the Serial Advanced Technology Attachment (SATA) cables that connect CD, DVD and hard disc drives to the motherboard of most computers. He found that by deliberately creating a very specific series of superfluous data reads or writes from or to the drives, the cables can be made to create a radio wave at around 6 gigahertz. This wave can be used to encode and transmit data to a waiting hacker several metres…