Many people, companies, and government agencies use air-gapped computers as a final line of defense against hackers. Now, this may not be as secure as it once was.

In a previous article about low tech solutions to high tech problems, we mentioned air gaps. These security measures offer protection by creating a specific need when transferring data.

Essentially, two separate devices or systems may have different security levels. Transferring data between them requires some kind of detachable or transportable device. This enables the more classified system to remain unconnected to a vulnerable network.

“Air gap” relates to the fact that you have to use a separate physical device to transfer data. You may also know of a similar strategy involving a “Faraday cage”, as well.

However, new cyberattacks render both security solutions vulnerable.

A Familiar Strategy to Overcome Air Gaps

Last year, many outlets touted the inherent usefulness of air gaps and similar techniques.

Air gaps were, after all, a simpler solution to the network hacking vulnerability since the more sensitive device could remain unconnected to a vulnerable network.

Due to the risks, many companies still maintained multiple layers of security for their systems. After all, a network with no outside connections could still fall victim to some kind of connectivity or infection.

Mordechai Guri, the same person from our previous article, recently displayed the air gap system’s vulnerabilities at a Black Hat conference. If you are unfamiliar with the term “Black Hat” in relation to hackers, check out our handy guide on hacking terms.

At the conference, Guri delineated all the possible ways to circumvent air gap protections.

He used a similar tactic described in our previous article with malware and ultrasonic sound to extract private keys for Bitcoin wallets. Speakers and microphones generate sounds detectable to smartphones in what Guri calls an “audio gap”.

As with his other methods, Guri’s attempts require physical access to a computer. However, there is one more physical vulnerability to air gaps involving low-level magnetic fields.

image of ball magnets in the form of a 3D star for article Air gaps may not Protect Your Data Like you Think
Low-level magnetic fields help hackers manipulate CPUs | Meredin | Pixabay

Magnets as Simple as Compasses can Outwit air gaps

Physical cybersecurity is a viable solution for more than just the Star Wars worlds.

Both air gaps and Faraday cages fall victim to the new way researchers found to attack devices. Using low-level magnetic fields, someone can access anything with a CPU even with one of these two physical security elements in place.

Guri calls this the “Odini Method” after the name of the malware used.

The malware controls the low-level magnetic field coming from a CPU to manipulate core loads. The hacker can then transmit outside the cage or air gap.

Magneto uses a similar method involving CPU and magnetic field manipulation. However, it can transmit to any nearby smartphone instead.

The quick way to circumvent these vulnerabilities is to have software or hardware that can generate a magnetic field. You could also try “zoning” which is a physical restriction of various devices. A.k.a.: no smartphones allowed near the high-security devices.

Data breaches and hacking scandals occur almost on a daily occurrence. It’s often impossible to keep all of your information private. However, although they are still vulnerable to high-effort proximity attacks, air gapping your devices is still one of the best ways to keep your files private.

How effective do you think Faraday cages and air gaps are in today’s world of cybersecurity?

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