Confidential data could be stolen by monitoring the power generated by everyday household devices, Edinburgh Napier research has revealed.

Date posted

19 December 2016


Last updated

9 March 2023

Power, sound, and heat output could potentially be used to compromise everything from your smartphone to your smart fridge as the rapid expansion of the Internet of Things (IoT) opens the door to new cyber-security threats.

With hardware security becoming a major concern, researchers at Edinburgh Napier and Keysight Technologies have revealed that hackers may be able to identify a device’s ‘secret key’ by observing power output and use it to plunder private data.

The complexity of these networks and the diversity of the devices attached to them will challenge current cyber security techniques that detect vulnerabilities by scanning code and content.

Unlike traditional hacking, which focuses on the software layer of security, the team developed a new technique termed ‘Bare Metal Forensics’ which combines Edinburgh Napier’s expertise in digital forensics with Keysight’s leading edge capabilities in high speed signal acquisition and analysis.

Dr. Owen Lo, a Research Fellow in the School of Computing, Engineering & the Built Environment, said: “A critical piece of information that observing power output, heat, and sound can potentially expose is the secret key of cryptographic algorithms – a form of password – running on computer hardware.

“Since this secret key may be used to ‘lock’ and ‘unlock’ confidential data in some forms of cryptographic algorithms, a hacker who can obtain this information has the potential to access private data.”

The team exposed the vulnerabilities of hardware security by monitoring the power consumption of a simple computer while its cryptographic algorithm was running.

Dr. Lo said: “While this is early stage research, the process has shown that a hardware-monitoring approach to hacking is possible. Our method provided an entry route into the device which could be exploited to gain wider access to the device’s software.

“Unless defensive measures are taken, the Internet of Things could expose huge vulnerabilities to our devices and infrastructure.”

Douglas Carson, a researcher at Keysight Technologies, said: “As the leading Test and Measurement company, Keysight Technologies is on the cutting edge of high speed measurement analytics. Adapting and advancing these capabilities to deliver a more secure infrastructure for the Internet of Things is a natural progression for us.”

The Internet of Things describes the vast network of physical devices that are connected to the internet, which enables them to collect and exchange data.

A live demonstration of the process is hosted on YouTube.

The peer-reviewed paper, Power analysis attacks on the AES-128 S-box using differential power analysis (DPA) and correlation power analysis (CPA), is published in the Journal of Cyber Security Technology.

This research was conducted in collaboration with Keysight Technologies and was funded by The Data Lab.