A new attack against RSA has been made known this week. Details about it can be found in the paper RSA Key Extraction via Low-Bandwidth Acoustic Cryptanalysis. One notable name amongst the co-authors of the paper is Adi Shamir, who was one of the three that published the algorithm.
This attack is a type of side-channel attack against RSA. A side channel attack is an attack that targets the implementation of a cryptosystem instead of targeting the algorithm. RSA has been broken by many side channel attacks in the past. The most famous of which is probably the timing attack described by Paul C. Kocher in his paper Timing Attacks on Implementations of Diffie-Hellman, RSA, DSS and Other Systems.
This attack works by taking advantage of the fact that a computer emits different sounds when perforing different tasks. With this, it is possible to recover information about the RSA key used during the process of encryption or decryption. Genkin, Shamir and Tromer demonstrated that when the same plaintext is encrypted with different RSA keys, it is possible to discern which key was used in the encryption process. This is a form of key distinguishing attack.
This concept is not new. In fact, it is the topic of Tromer’s PhD thesis Hardware-Based Cryptanalysis published in 2007. What is new about this paper is that the researchers demonstrated an actual attack that is able to distinguish between RSA keys, instead of just the theoratical possibility. What is even more surprising is that the researchers were able to pull off the attack using mobile phones which demonstrates that the attack does not require specialized recording equipment to pull off.
Should you be worried? The attack was demonstrated in lab conditions. It might be a little harder to pull off in real life scenarios where there will presumably be much more background noise to mask the sounds. The actual attack was demonstrated on GnuPG. Updating to the latest version of GnuPG 1.4.x will fix this particular problem. Better still, use the GnuPG 2.x branch which employs RSA blinding that should protect against such side-channel attacks.
While this attack might not be practical as of now, it is very interesting still because many cryptosystems suffer from what are basically implementation problems. Once again, don’t roll your own cryptography!