'Cold Boot' encryption hack unlikely, says Microsoft

But Vista users can take steps to protect against the eventuality

Users can keep thieves from stealing encrypted data by changing some settings in Windows, a Microsoft product manager said as he downplayed the threat posed by new research that shows how attackers can inspect a "ghost" of computer memory.

Russ Humphries, a senior product manager for Windows Vista security, reacted Friday to reports last week about a new low-tech technique that could be used to lift the encryption key used by Vista's BitLocker or Mac OS X's FileVault. Once an attacker has the key, of course, he could easily access the data locked away on an encrypted drive.

The method -- dubbed "Cold Boot" because criminals can boost their chances by cooling down the computer's memory with compressed gas or even liquid nitrogen -- relies on the fact that data doesn't disappear instantly when a system is turned off or enters "sleep" mode. Instead, the bits stored in memory chips decay slowly, relatively speaking.

Cooling down memory to -58 degrees Fahrenheit (-50 degrees Celsius) would give attackers as long as 10 minutes to examine the contents of memory, said the researchers from Princeton University, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Wind River Systems. And when they pushed the envelope and submersed the memory in liquid nitrogen to bring the temperature down to -310 degrees Fahrenheit (-190 degrees Celsius), researchers saw just 0.17% data decay after an hour.

The whole thing is unlikely, Humphries argued in a post to the Vista security team's blog. To make his case, he ticked off several preconditions:

-- The attacker would have to have physical access to the machine.

-- The laptop would likely have to be in "sleep" mode, rather than in "hibernate" mode or powered off.

-- The person who finds/steals the laptop must be knowledgeable and interested enough to execute the attack.

"I would posit that the opportunistic laptop thief is somewhat unlikely to carry a separate laptop on which they will have installed tools that allow them to reconstruct cryptographic keys, or for that matter have a can of compressed air handy," said Humphries.

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Gregg Keizer

Gregg Keizer

Computerworld
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