Recovering Keyboard Inputs through Thermal Imaging
Researchers at the University of California, Irvine, are able to recover user passwords by way of thermal imaging. The tech is pretty straightforward, but it’s interesting to think about the types of scenarios in which it might be pulled off.
Abstract: As a warm-blooded mammalian species, we humans routinely leave thermal residues on various objects with which we come in contact. This includes common input devices, such as keyboards, that are used for entering (among other things) secret information, such as passwords and PINs. Although thermal residue dissipates over time, there is always a certain time window during which thermal energy readings can be harvested from input devices to recover recently entered, and potentially sensitive, information.
To-date, there has been no systematic investigation of thermal profiles of keyboards, and thus no efforts have been made to secure them. This serves as our main motivation for constructing a means for password harvesting from keyboard thermal emanations. Specifically, we introduce Thermanator, a new post factum insider attack based on heat transfer caused by a user typing a password on a typical external keyboard. We conduct and describe a user study that collected thermal residues from 30 users entering 10 unique passwords (both weak and strong) on 4 popular commodity keyboards. Results show that entire sets of key-presses can be recovered by non-expert users as late as 30 seconds after initial password entry, while partial sets can be recovered as late as 1 minute after entry. Furthermore, we find that Hunt-and-Peck typists are particularly vulnerable. We also discuss some Thermanator mitigation strategies.
The main take-away of this work is three-fold: (1) using external keyboards to enter (already much-maligned) passwords is even less secure than previously recognized, (2) post factum (planned or impromptu) thermal imaging attacks are realistic, and finally (3) perhaps it is time to either stop using keyboards for password entry, or abandon passwords altogether.