New insider attack steals passwords by reading thermal energy from keyboards

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After entering a password, your regular computer keyboard might appear to look the same as always, but a new approach harvesting thermal energy can illuminate the recently pressed keys, revealing that keyboard-based password entry is even less secure than previously thought.

Computer Science Ph.D. students Tyler Kaczmarek and Ercan Ozturk from UC Irvine’s Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences (ICS), working with Chancellor’s Professor of Computer Science Gene Tsudik, have exploited thermal residue from human fingertips to introduce a new insider attack — the Thermanator.

“It’s a new attack that allows someone with a mid-range thermal camera to capture keys pressed on a normal keyboard, up to one minute after the victim enters them,” describes Tsudik. “If you type your password and walk or step away, someone can learn a lot about it after-the-fact.”

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