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Detecting temperature through clock skew

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By requesting timestamps from a computer, a remote adversary can find out the precise speed of its system clock. As each clock crystal is slightly different, and varies with temperature, this can act as a fingerprint of the computer and its location. The end of my 22C3 talk showed how a side effect of TCP/IP steganography detection was to precisely measure the error of a computers system clock (skew). This talk will review and expand on that material, showing the various other mechanisms for monitoring clock skew and discussing the tradeoffs involved. Because every computer has a unique clock skew, even ones of the same model, this acts as a fingerprint. Even if that computer moves location and changes ISP, it can be later identified through this clock skew. In addition to varying between computers, clock skew also changes depending on temperature. Thus a remote attacker, monitoring timestamps, can make an estimate of a computers environment, which has wide-scale implications on security and privacy. Through measuring day length and time-zone, the location of a computer could be estimated, which is a particular concern with anonymity networks and VPNs. Local temperature changes caused by air-conditioning or movements of people can identify whether two machines are in the location, or even are virtual machines on one server. The temperature of a computer can also be influenced by CPU load, so opening up a low-bandwidth covert channel. This could be used by processes which are prohibited from communicating for confidentiality reasons and because this is a physical covert channel, it can even cross "air-gap" security boundaries. The talk will demonstrate how to use this channel to attack the hidden service feature offered by the Tor anonymity system. Here, an attacker can repeatedly access a hidden service, increasing CPU load and inducing a temperature change. This will affect clock skew, which the attacker can monitor on all candidate Tor servers. When there is a match between the load pattern and the clock skew, the attacker has linked the real IP address of a hidden server to its pseudonym, violating the anonymity properties Tor is designed to provide. The talk will also present a separate illustration of the temperature covert channel technique, investigating a suspected attack on the Tor network in August 2006, by a well equipped adversary.

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