Optical Eavesdropping

Quick, close your eyes! Somebody else may be reading this. Researchers at Saarland University in Germany have shown that it is possible to read the content of a computer screen through reflections present on shiny objects nearby. Teapots, wine glasses, spoons, and even the eyes of the computer user are all reflective surfaces that can support this kind of optical eavesdropping. The research shows that equipment costing less than $1500 can be used to successfully resolve these small reflections from up to 10 meters away, and more expensive equipment can be used from distances over 30 meters. Take a look at the researchers’ findings here.

I am fascinated by this research – in part because I’ve always been interested in spy gadgets, but also because it exposes a disconnect in our sense of security with technology. These days, it is very easy to comprehend digital espionage originating within our computers, because it happens so frequently. However, techniques like those presented by the Saarland University researchers remind us that we are also vulnerable in our own non-digital world. Regardless of how careful we are with passwords and making sure that our computers are free of viruses, our own interaction with technology in the physical world that surrounds us can be used against us.

The good news (and bad news) is that it is far easier to steal your personal information from discarded credit card applications than to take pictures of your computer screen reflected in your eyes. So go ahead, open your eyes and walk over to your shredder with those checks that your credit card company just sent in the mail.

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