How a Dumbphone Can Steal Data From a Computer That Has Never Been Online

Researchers show that electromagnetic waves can be used to exchange data between an air-gapped computer and a phone.

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Jul 27 2015, 4:53pm

Sometimes you don't need sophisticated James Bond-like gizmos to steal data from a highly secured computer. Sometimes, given the right circumstances, all you need is one of those old dumbphones from the previous decade.

Researchers in Israel have demonstrated that it's possible to steal small amounts of data from a computer that's isolated from the internet, also known as an air-gapped computer, using an 9-year-old Motorola C123 phone that doesn't have any modern-day functionalities such as a mobile data connection or Wi-Fi. Thanks for a special kind of malware that the researchers installed on the phone and the target computer, the researchers were able to extract data via electromagnetic waves that computers naturally emit.

The researchers showed how that's done in the video below.

While this research shows that there are always ways to steal information from air-gapped computers, there's a big caveat here. This whole method relies on having malware installed on both the phone and the computer. in other words: the target computer needs to be hacked first in order for this method to work.

Either way, the researchers called this a "breakthrough" in their upcoming paper. And as Wired's Kim Zetter notes this attack allows hackers to extract sensitive data such as passwords or encryption keys.

This story has been corrected. An earlier version of this post said that this technique could be used to get the GPS coordinates of a computer, but in reality, an attacker would presumably already know the location thanks to the phone.