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back to article How an ancient printer can spill your most intimate secrets

Researchers have devised a novel way to recover confidential messages processed in doctors' offices and elsewhere by analyzing the sounds made when documents are reproduced on dot-matrix printers. This so-called side-channel attack works by recording the “acoustic emanations” of a confidential document being printed, and then …

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Alternate print heads

Instead of messing around with microphones and DM printers how about creating a replacement print cartridge for ink jet printers with memory built in. If you can get close enough to place a microphone then you can get close enough to replace the cartridge of the printer with one that records every dot printed.

Getting hold of the memory could either be done wirelessly or by going through the trash.

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Bronze badge

Really?

Have you ever changed ink or toner before? I'm pretty sure putting in a modified cartridge would be far more conspicuous than placing a covert recording device. Audio bugs these days can fit on the head of a pin and could be placed on the printer with the touch of a single finger, in passing.

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Joke

More really?

And I'm pretty sure Epson/HP et al would tell you that you've invalidated the warranty.

ONLY USE GENUINE(R) INK(TM).

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Coat

Clarficiation required

"the four Wikipedia articles printed averaged an accuracy rate of about 63 per cent"

Seems a tad higher than I expected.

Oh, wait ... Are you referring to the validity of the source material or the accuracy of the transcription?

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This post has been deleted by its author

(Written by Reg staff) Gold badge

Re: Joke

I thought it was rather a good joke... and I like Wikipedia.

And for the record, Wikipedia was not found to be more accurate than Britannica. Here is an article we wrote at the time...

http://www.theregister.co.uk/2005/12/16/wikipedia_britannica_science_comparison/

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Coat

RE: Joke

"Wikipedia has a higher accuracy rating than printed encyclopedias, including Encyclopedia Britannica"

Where did you read that? Wikipedia?*

"But people could change it! Yeah, and I could walk into your house and write in your encyclopedia, big deal"

A biro drawing of a cock-n-balls might not be noticeable in your encyclopedia, but would be in mine**.

* It's the joke that just keeps on giving!

** Implication of my owning an encyclopedia was added for comedic effect.

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Joke

@Ballseyed

Are you Jimmy Wales?

I thought it was quite funny.

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Boffin

Nothing New Here, Move Along

This type of acoustic eavesdropping was used decades ago to determine what was being typed on IBM "ball" typewriters. The delay between the key press and the type strike is unique for each position on the type ball. Spy agencies would try to stick a "bug" in the typewriters they wanted to monitor.

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Bronze badge

Pointless

If you have enough access to a printer to stick a microphone on it and some way of recording or transmitting the audio then you have enough access to stick a dongle in series with the printer lead and record or transmit exactly what has been printed.

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Silver badge

Bah!

You're all missing the point! The key question, the BIG question here is: Where in Aazathoth's name did these kids find a dot matrix printer that was a) in working order and 2) had a driver that was compatible with today's operating systems?

As for multipart paper - the use of it goes back to impact line printer days and has little or nothing to do with the legal world (that in all probability came up with its persnickety rule years after carbon copies were a reality).

Multipart stationery is - or was - used simply to save time. There was typically one and only one printer in a computer room and it ran all night non-stop in most shops I worked in.

Many years ago a fellow consultant at a large manufacturing plant in the UK brought all development to a halt by printing nine copies of an enormous bill of materials print ( we're talking a box of fanfold greenbar per copy here). Once the protests had risen to a certain level I asked what was going on and was filled in. I then asked the lady responsible why she hadn't run it as two print runs (one on four-part, one on five) instead of nine runs on top copy only. The stunned silence from the young and restless, who had forgotten that it wasn't always simpler to just say print X copies in the ECL was quite satisfying.

I grabbed her hands as she tried to cancel her run (which would have wasted 3/4 box of paper) and called the operators and had them intervene by loading two-part in 3 of her queued runs, then sticking them into backlog until the early morning and it was Job Done.

Of course, no-one but me had ever tried to read the bottom copy of five part (mostly illegible black smudge) or the top copy (mostly letter-shaped holes punched in the paper due to the need to dial the print hammers up to Maximum Wellie just to see *anything* on the bottom copy) and so there was yet another voyage of discovery to be undertaken by the New Guard when someone remembered my advice.

Luckily that would be after my contract was up and I was long gone.

Ah, the Goodole Daze.

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old hat

Not exactly new. In the early 70's spooks started recording IBM "golfball" typewriters and figuring out what was being typed by the length of time to rotate the ball to each letter.

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Silver badge

@Stevie

You're talking chain or band line printers here. I very much doubt that a dot-matrix, even a heavy duty one like a Printronix, would be able to do more than three part, chemical transfer paper.

When I was working with mainframe band printers, we were using multi-part fanfold stationery with interleaved carbon paper (not chemical transfer paper). There was a machine called a splitter, which would split the copies out and wind the carbon paper up for disposal, while leaving the two split copies neatly folded (at least, if the operator threaded it correctly). For three and more part stationery, it had to be put through further times to split each copy off. Interestingly enough, each carbon sheet had a completely legible copy of what was on the page. We also had authorized cheques with a second carbon copy, but this was for audit purposes.

I was once told that the hood on these fast printers was more than just acoustic protection, because if the band or chain broke, it was moving so fast that it would damage the hood as it flew off. Not something I would like to hit me.

Where's the old fart icon.

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Thumb Up

Faster than a speeeding bullet....nearly

I've never seen an inkjet or laser win on speed compared to a dot matrix I saw about 20 years ago. It actually was a moment - "how many lines of code is that? Is that mine? Oh nooooo"

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J 3
FAIL

speech-recognition technology known as Hidden Markov Model (HMM)

I'm sure lots of such techs do use them, but HMMs are not a "speech-recognition technology".

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Anonymous Coward

little new here...

I was designing counter measures to EMC eavesdropping and the like on such impact printers back in the 80's (US Gov't Tempest spec) . There's little new here... If anything this illustrates the knowledge management issues across generations regarding such forms of security aware technology.

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Coat

Walls have ears

How unnecessary! As all von Däniken fans know, walls (and other solid objects) record all the sounds that were ever played within or near them, at the quantum level. Now if we only had a way of playing it back ...

Mine's the one with a copy of "Chariots of the Gods" in the pocket ...

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Go

Duhhh!!

Why do you think they sold those foam lined boxes? To cut down noise in the office place? Frell no, it was to keep government secrets out of the hands of wikileaks. Or the Russians maybe. Or aliens in my case. Crap! I guess that means all my Windows 3.1 serials are in the wild. Damn!

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Alert

security!

there's a man loitering in a very suspicious manner near our printer...

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Boffin

Another use for dot matrix printers

Another use for dot matrix printers:

If you take out the ribbon and trick the sensor with matchsticks and/or electrician's tape, they can print onto the stencils used in those old hand-cranked printing presses they used to use in schools before photocopying became affordable.

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FAIL

What's old is new again.

This "news" is decades old.

Those machines were never secure, anyone remotely interested in the topic should have known this.

Next we'll have some top notch product of our educational system discover the cardboard box.

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Black Helicopters

sshhhhh....

Laser printers are not secure at all -- they have internal memory to "spool" the print jobs, and most of this can be (and apparently often IS) recovered when the printer goes for service/recycling. Ditto copiers capable of more than single copies.

During the Cold War the Ruskis were able to intercept encrypted communications from foreign embassies by remotely reading the electromagnetic fluctuations in the 6 inches of bare cable from the tele-typewriters to the encryption box.

Biros sending signals of the what was being written, by monitoring pressure and direction, existed, not just in Bond movies.

Hard drives in discarded First World computers are being read in Chinese "recycling" shops to obtain banking and other data useful for ID theft.

The only really secret secret in the world is the one not communicated to ANYBODY and not even thought very loudly.

Where's the AFDB icon???

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Unhappy

Old News

The TEMPEST requirements for mll-grade IT equipment has included prevention of this attack vector since the 1960's. The recent launch of the new Coast Guard Cutter Bertholf was delayed for several months because of failure to meet this particular standard.

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Big Brother

LX300...

I've even seen color ribbons for those. And new ones can be bought straight from Epson, with USB cabling and all.

There is no other way to print 5-way Carbon-copy invoices. We usually run out of continuous-feed invoice paper faster than the ribbons. Plus we were able to 'recycle' ribbons using stamp ink. Messy, but very effective. And cheap.

But wait, we have an Olivetti Tekne 3, for when the PC hooked to the LX-300 craps up, or out-of-hours emergency batches. Yes, that's a typewriter, it weights only 35Kg, it is 35 years-old, and still works. You could swear that the desk where both of them are sitting could collapse any minute, due to vibration. You can hear those from 500 feet away, without microphones. Both of them sound like high-pitch jackhammers. We are almost required to use earplugs.

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