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Hackers can break a computer's encryption just by touching it

It sounds like a superpower out of some X-Men comic book: Imagine if you break into any computer just by touching it with your bare hands. It's not a mutant ability, it's real science.

Researchers have developed a method for cracking digital encryption with the power of touch. MIT Technology Review described how this new technology works:

A signal can be picked up by touching exposed metal on a computer’ chassis with a plain wire. Or that wire can make contact anywhere on the body of an attacker touching the computer with a bare hand (sweaty hands work best). The ground signal can also be measured by fastening an alligator clip at the far end of an Ethernet, VGA, or USB cable attached to the computer, or even wirelessly with sensitive voltage-detection equipment. The catch is that contact must be made as data is unlocked with a key—during decryption of a folder or an e-mail message, for instance.

Scientists from Tel Aviv University in Israel demonstrated this technique at a conference in Santa Barbara this week.

The principle behind touch-hacking is simple in theory:

The trick is based on the fact that the “ground” electrical potential in many computers fluctuates according to the computation that is being performed by its processor—including the computations that take place when cryptographic software operates to decrypt data using a secret key.

The electric potential of a computer can be conducted through the human body through the skin and deciphered by another computer. The good news is the researchers don't know of any hackers or governments using this method already. They've already notified cryptographers, and new encryption methods will likely include random, junk code to fool touch-hackers. In fact, GnuPG free encryption software has already been updated to protect against this exact threat.

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