Micropulses: a New Threat to Internet Security?

By Craig Buckler
We teamed up with SiteGround
To bring you the latest from the web and tried-and-true hosting, recommended for designers and developers. SitePoint Readers Get Up To 65% OFF Now

Recent research at the University of Scunthorpe in the UK has identified an issue which could compromise the security on which we depend for online shopping and banking. The department for Computer Research and Advanced Protocols has demonstrated IDentity Information Overlay Technology. The technique analyzes your activity rather than data packets to reveal passwords, visited sites and other sensitive personal information.

The project leader, Professor Juppe, explains:

binary data flowModern devices have a persistent Internet connection. Even if you’re not actively using a device, it’s fetching messages, checking for software updates or handling other processes which result in a steady stream of data transmission. Binary is converted to electronic signals which flow through the network.

Binary data is usually represented as clean voltage spikes. In reality, the signal is affected by electromagnetic interference which causes imperceptibly small fluctuations named “micropulses”. While they are rarely enough to cause data loss, micropulses pass through wired and wireless communication layers. They can even cause minuscule delays and bursts when translated through a fiber-optic bridge.

binary data carrier waveThe biggest cause of micropulses is the user; the human body acts as a transmitter when using an input device such as a keyboard. In essence, your connected data flow becomes a carrier wave for micropulse information which can be analyzed. It does not matter whether your connection uses HTTP or HTTPS — the actual data can be ignored but your activities are revealed.

micropulse analysis successThe technology is being refined and the rate of successful micropulse analysis increases exponentially each year. The technique works better if you are physically close to the target — such as on the same wifi connection. However, the research team has successfully attempted analysis over hundreds of miles and, as micropulse detection improves, geographical location is unlikely to remain a limiting factor.

Micropulse Protection

Micropulse analysis technology is experimental but the threat is real. Fortunately, there are a number of low-tech solutions which significantly reduce the risk of identity infringement.

1. Use an on-screen keyboard
Touch screen and on-screen keyboards are not completely immune, but micropulse analysis is made far more difficult. Professor Juppe suggests switching between on-screen and real keyboards when entering sensitive information such as passwords.

micropulse protection2. Shield your input devices
Wrap aluminum foil around devices such as keyboards — the shiny side should face inward to reflect the pulses. If you’re using a laptop, use a small piece of foil around the Ethernet cable or, on wifi, regularly move the device to modify micropulses and make them more difficult to analyze.

3. Reduce electromagnetic interference
Device shielding may not be enough since your body conducts micropulse information. The effect can be reduced by wearing gloves and rubber boots while working.

Have any of your accounts been compromised even though you were careful to safeguard passwords? Have you been approached by someone who knew details of your online activities or services? Could micropulses be to blame?

We teamed up with SiteGround
To bring you the latest from the web and tried-and-true hosting, recommended for designers and developers. SitePoint Readers Get Up To 65% OFF Now
  • April Fool !!

  • ralph.m

    Reading this article so increased my output of micropulses that they combined into a single macropulse, which I’ve just finished cleaning up. Nice article, anyhow. :-)

  • VF

    Told ya, I don’t wear this tinfoi hat for nothing.

  • Andrew

    I use the new HTML5 Micropulse API to predict what users want to type next, then pre-fetch data from the server prior to their actual HTTP requests. Since implementing this technology, we’ve seen a 6000% increase in sales and 550% increase in new customers. Thanks, micro-pulses!

    • Wow, that’s a novel use of the technology. I guess micropulses could be affected by electrical signals in the brain which are transmitted over wifi and ethernet. Your web application could react to a thought before the user is aware of it.

  • I’ve wanted an excuse to upgrade to Google’s new mind control(er) device. Cheers

  • Zerowing

    April Fool’s?

  • tex

    Computer Research and Advanced Protocols = CRAP
    IDentity Information Overlay Technology = IDIOT
    april fools

    • Well done, but there are far more clues than that…
      but you’ll need to be a real geek to spot them all!

  • Tim

    “University of Scunthorpe”, I hope to do my Phd research there in Micropulses, under the world-famous “Professor Juppe”.

  • Smily

    Is this a april fool day prank :D

  • The Schaef

    You guys missed a prime opportunity to slide in a sly Futurama reference by having the red binary read:


  • PaulH

    Hehe, I like the use of the graph to denote the date – 1.4.13

  • Neil

    Good job with the binary code…

  • Wyatt Barnett

    This isn’t anything new — government agencies have been doing nutty stuff gathering radiation off monitors and radiation off of running computers for years. I recall getting a batch of PCs donated from some part of the DoD that had these insane lead-lined cases around the typical case. Had to sawzall them off, fun times.

  • AM

    1000001 -> ASCII 65 -> A
    1010000 -> ASCII 80 -> P
    1010010 -> ASCII 82 -> R
    1001001 -> ASCII 70 -> I
    1001100 -> ASCII 76 -> L

    1000110 -> ASCII 70 -> F
    1001111 -> ASCII 79 -> O
    1001111 -> ASCII 79 -> O
    1001100 -> ASCII 76 -> L

  • The clue here was that you went from a description of a phenomenon, to a description of a security problem, without any explanation for why the former causes the latter.

    And I thought it was just bad writing :-D

  • Robert

    I think this should be a wikapeda

  • Kevin

    Now I have a great excuse to give my wife when I need some new boots.