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Just About Everything In Your House Can Be Hacked

Israeli researchers recently showed how data can be stolen from an offline computer. But computers aren't the only devices that can be compromised.

Just one keystroke away
Just one keystroke away
Elena Kudryavtseva

MOSCOW — For many years, the word "password" and "123456" were the world's most frequently used passwords. Although people have grown more security conscious and technology-savvy, the world of hacking is developing at a faster pace.

To draw attention to this problem, scientists from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev recently demonstrated how to steal data from a computer that had been disconnected from all networks. They used Fansmitter, a software that can select a desired file on a computer and transmit the information on it through the air, literally.

The technology works on the premise that all information on a computer is in binary code, that is, either 1 or 0. In order to transmit a 1, the program launches a series of complicated calculations. The processor begins to work at full capacity, causing it to heat up and making the internal fan spin faster and louder. If it's slower and quieter, the program transmits a 0. The noise is recorded on a nearby smartphone that is then broadcast to another source.

"Remember how in the film Seventeen Moments of Spring a pot was placed on the window, which meant that all is well, and how its absence signified an ambush? That was the transfer of one bit of information through an unconventional way. Today, such opportunities are widespread in computer technologies," says Dmitry Kuznetsov, director of methodology and standardization at Positive Technologies, a cyber security firm.

This type of cyber crime is limited in its capability. It can only decipher one to two Kilobits of data over 24 hours. So, a top secret dossier may be out of reach. But the access code to a sensitive computer system can be obtained. This is particularly interesting given that all computers have fans, including ones that operate on nuclear power plants and military facilities. Is it then really possible to protect computer systems from leaks?

In Russia, unconventional information channels were studied in the mid-2000s. Back then, security services doubted such channels existed, and questioned whether or not allocating resources to fight them was a worthy cause. After their existence was proven by IT specialists, a national standard for information security was developed to prevent leaks. But the funding behind this branch was later cut off, according to experts, putting Russia in a vulnerable position.

National leaders across the world worry about the compromise of computer systems. It is believed that the era of cyber crime began in 1983, when a student, Kevin Mitnick, breached ARPANET — the predecessor of the modern Internet. He was able to infiltrate computer systems at the Pentagon, and gained access to all files at the U.S. Department of Defense.

Several years later, 16-year-old Jonathan James hacked into NASA's server and stole the source code for the International Space Station. Since then, the number of cyber crimes has rapidly increased.

To avoid being detected by an antivirus, modern hackers specialize in masking what they are doing. Usually they steal information discreetly, hiding it in a massive flow of data that does not cause suspicion. You can encrypt text into a video or audio file in a way that will not change its size. For instance, you can hide encrypted information in a video clip of a family gathering. There are many ways to hide information, which is why tracing them is almost impossible.

For several years now, hackers have increased their working range to cover the "Internet of Things," that is, all gadgets that work at home and have network connectivity. From credit cards and cars to servers that contain medical information on patients, nothing is safe from hackers.

Smart home systems that combine several household appliances into one and have network access are of a particular interest to hackers. The refrigerator, alone, provides endless creative possibilities since owners allow the appliance to evaluate its contents and purchase replacements.

Cyber crimes like these are a rarity; voice-controlled appliances are targeted more often in security breaches. In addition to direct commands, these systems typically register all loud noises that they detect in a home and transmit the data through the Internet.

The "hits" this year included the hacking of a baby monitor and a toilet. Parents of a 3-year-old in San Francisco found out that the hacker was scaring the child at night by talking to him through the device. And a programmable toilet was pulled out of action by a group of hackers that gained access to all of its features. They were able to flush the toilet on command, frightening those using the toilet. Experts predict that we will soon spend the same amount of money protecting our gadgets as we do on their purchase.

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Society

In Northern Kenya, Where Climate Change Is Measured In Starving Children

The worst drought in 40 years, which has deepened from the effects of climate change, is hitting the young the hardest around the Horn of Africa. A close-up look at the victims, and attempts to save lives and limit lasting effects on an already fragile region in Kenya.

Photo of five mothers holding their malnourished children

At feeding time, nurses and aides encourage mothers to socialize their children and stimulate them to eat.

Georgina Gustin

KAKUMA — The words "Stabilization Ward" are painted in uneven black letters above the entrance, but everyone in this massive refugee camp in Kakuma, Kenya, calls it ya maziwa: The place of milk.

Rescue workers and doctors, mothers and fathers, have carried hundreds of starving children through the doors of this one-room hospital wing, which is sometimes so crowded that babies and toddlers have to share beds. A pediatric unit is only a few steps away, but malnourished children don’t go there. They need special care, and even that doesn’t always save them.

In an office of the International Rescue Committee nearby, Vincent Opinya sits behind a desk with figures on dry-erase boards and a map of the camp on the walls around him. “We’ve lost 45 children this year due to malnutrition,” he says, juggling emergencies, phone calls, and texts. “We’re seeing a significant increase in malnutrition cases as a result of the drought — the worst we’ve faced in 40 years.”

From January to June, the ward experienced an 800 percent rise in admissions of children under 5 who needed treatment for malnourishment — a surge that aid groups blame mostly on a climate change-fueled drought that has turned the region into a parched barren.

Opinya, the nutrition manager for the IRC here, has had to rattle off these statistics many times, but the reality of the numbers is starting to crack his professional armor. “It’s a very sad situation,” he says, wearily. And he believes it will only get worse. A third year of drought is likely on the way.

More children may die. But millions will survive malnutrition and hunger only to live through a compromised future, researchers say. The longer-term health effects of this drought — weakened immune systems, developmental problems — will persist for a generation or more, with consequences that will cascade into communities and societies for decades.

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