Targeting flatbed scanners could allow hackers to break into secure "air-gapped" computer systems

Like some geeky, tech-savvy version of the Circle of Life song from The Lion King, there’s a never-ending feedback loop between the ingenuity of hackers and security-minded researchers’ attempts to think one step ahead of them.

The latest example comes courtesy of researchers from the Cyber Security Research Center at Israel’s Ben-Gurion University, who have conceived of a method by which hackers could bypass firewalls and intrusion-detection systems by hacking flatbed scanners using a laser-toting drone.

“This work presents a way in which an organization’s scanner can be used as a gateway for the purpose of communication under the radar with previously installed malware, even on isolated networks, with an outside attacker using a laser,” Ben Nassi, a graduate student at the Cyber Security Research Center, who was a co-author on a paper describing the method, told Digital Trends. “In addition, it shows how trying to hide the scanner from the line of sight won’t help because an Internet of Things device that’s located nearby can be hijacked and used as a means to module the command to the scanner.”

The method is effective from a distance of 900 meters using lasers that can be easily purchased online from places like eBay. Using the technique, the researchers were able to achieve data transmission rates of 25-50 milliseconds per bit. No, that’s not going to match your broadband download speed, but it’s enough to send commands that could control a bot on an isolated “air-gapped” system, meaning one that’s not otherwise connected to the outside world.

The attack does require that malware is first installed on a system somehow, but after that it could be commanded in certain terrifying ways — such as Nassi’s uncomfortable examples of “shutdown system” or “launch missile.”

So if simply moving your flatbed scanner out of line of sight won’t work, what does he suggest as a possible solution? “We suggest you disconnect the scanner from the network and use via a proxy computer that will be monitored by a model that has learned to identify the attack,” he continued. “That way anyone trying to send a message to the organization will be detected and prevented.”

While this may seem extra-cautious, when you’re dealing with computer systems that can potentially cause massive amounts of damage — either by controlling systems we rely on or through the leaking of sensitive data — you really can’t be too careful.

We bet you’ll never look at your innocuous flatbed scanner the same way again!