New “Glowworm attack” recovers audio from devices’ power LEDs

This three-minute video outlines how Glowworm works and gives examples of optically recovered audio.

Researchers at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev have demonstrated a novel way to spy on electronic conversations. A new paper released today outlines a novel passive form of the TEMPEST attack called Glowworm, which converts minute fluctuations in the intensity of power LEDs on speakers and USB hubs back into the audio signals that caused those fluctuations.

The Cyber@BGU team—consisting of Ben Nassi, Yaron Pirutin, Tomer Gator, Boris Zadov, and Professor Yuval Elovici—analyzed a broad array of widely used consumer devices including smart speakers, simple PC speakers, and USB hubs. The team found that the devices' power indicator LEDs were generally influenced perceptibly by audio signals fed through the attached speakers.

Although the fluctuations in LED signal strength generally aren't perceptible to the naked eye, they're strong enough to be read with a photodiode coupled to a simple optical telescope. The slight flickering of power LED output due to changes in voltage as the speakers consume electrical current are converted into an electrical signal by the photodiode; the electrical signal can then be run through a simple Analog/Digital Converter (ADC) and played back directly.

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