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Here's a scary thought - while you sit there firing foam projectiles at co-workers, your USB rocket launcher could be harvesting your personal data and sending it to a snooper. What's worse, your security software would be none the wiser.
This would be an example of a hardware trojan, which up to this point were mostly considered to be modified circuits. A hacker might, for example, intercept a microchip while it's still in the factory and code subtle changes into it so that whatever device the chip goes into ends up crashing.
John Clark, Sylvain Leblanc, and Scott Knight, three computer engineers at the Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston, Ontario, set out to prove that a hardware trojan could be sent out by other means, specifically by exploiting a weakness in USB's plug-and-play functionality, New Scientist reports. Because the USB protocol blindly trusts any device being plugged in to honestly report its identity, a hacker would need only to switch it out with a compromised device that reports the same information.
To show that it was possible, the team assembled a keyboard with malicious circuitry that was successfully able to swipe data from the hard drive and transmit it in one of two ways - by sending out Morse code via LED flashes, and by encoding data as a subtle warbling output from the soundcard. The transmission isn't limited to these two examples, however, and could just have easily been sent via email, but the team was more interested in seeing if they could steal information on the sly.
"We've shown any USB device could contain a hardware trojan," says Leblanc. "Security software, if it checks USB devices at all, tends to look only for malware on USB memory sticks."
Leblanc went on to say that "you could mount a hardware trojan attack with a USB coffee-cup warmer," so the next time someone asks how you like your coffee, "malware free" might be an appropriate response.