Researchers discover alternative to cryptography

By Stuart Sumner
27 Apr 2011 View Comments
Hard drives with a pirate flag in the background

US researchers have developed software that allows data to be stored on a hard drive safely and invisibly, without the use of encryption.

The method is described in the report, 'Designing a cluster-based covert channel to evade disk investigation and forensics.

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The fact that this data is hidden means it is less vulnerable to hacking than encrypted information because, with the latter, the hacker can ascertain that the information actually exists, even though it is in encrypted form.

The new system fragments the data in question and scatters it in individual segments around the hard drive. Its inventors said it allows users to truthfully state there is no hidden information on the drive.

"We present a new approach to storing sensitive information on a cluster-based file system. [This] does not require storage of any additional information on the file system," according to the report.

Moreover, the channel effectively hides all data stored on the hard drive, meaning an investigator - or hacker - without the key will not be aware of the presence of information. 

Writing on his blog at Kaspersky's security site Threatpost, Dennis Fisher explained its advantages over traditional cryptography: "Modern cryptosystems are effective at preventing adversaries from reading the encrypted data, but they're not so good at hiding the presence of that data. Forensic techniques can easily identify encrypted files, and attackers can then use other means to perhaps force a user into divulging the secret key to decrypt them."

The paper was authored by Hassan Khan, Mobin Javed, Syed Ali Khayam and Fauzan Mirza of the University of Southern California, and the National University of Science and Technology in Pakistan.

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