back to article The NetCAT is out of the bag: Intel chipset exploited to sniff SSH passwords as they're typed over the network

It is possible to discern someone's SSH password as they type it into a terminal over the network by exploiting an interesting side-channel vulnerability in Intel's networking technology, say infosec gurus. In short, a well-positioned eavesdropper can connect to a server powered by one of Intel's vulnerable chipsets, and …

  1. Adrian 4 Silver badge

    How would you know which packets were transmitted as a result of user keystrokes and which were transmitted as a result of unrelated network activity ?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Ports, protocols and clients. I honestly don't know how it works, but considering you know where to look and when (at the initiation), it can't be crazy hard to figure it out. Now getting to the point of all that is another story. You can be the Johnny Bench of catching data, but you still have to get on the field.

      1. Henry Wertz 1 Gold badge


        A tcpdump type of utility can give you drstination address and port, the ssh content is encrypted but (unless youre forwarding multiple things over one ssh connection) that'll probably do it for throwing out irrelevant packets for timing analysis.

    2. Brian Miller

      Wireshark is my shell...

      OK, the way that it works is that first of all you have to monitor ALL of the traffic from the server. That's the first (unlikely) step.

      The SSH connection will go through some connection packets, trying some authentication schemes first, and finally fall back to waiting on client-side user input. The user input is sent one character in a packet at a time to the other server, so it's easy to spot. Then there comes a big blast from the server, with your message-of-the-day, etc. And then the user types a command, etc. So yeah, the password is easy to spot. And you will know the timing of the user's key stokes.

      What the researchers are getting at is because the network card is so efficient, it's like they are monitoring the sound of the keystrokes on the user's own keyboard. And then you are screwed just based on the timing of your typing.

      So be spastic. Make mistakes. Pause ... like William Shatner for ... no apparent ... reason.

      1. fidodogbreath Silver badge

        Re: Wireshark is my shell...

        Or paste it in from a password manager.

        1. Natalie Gritpants Jr Silver badge

          Re: Wireshark is my shell...

          Or use more than one fnger to type the password.

          1. dajames Silver badge

            Re: Wireshark is my shell...

            Or use more than one fnger to type the password.

            Upvoted because you made me smile ... but actually I would have thought that good touch typists would give away more information more easily to this kind of side-channel timing attack because their typing rhythm will be more predictable.

        2. LeahroyNake

          Re: Wireshark is my shell...

          I thought the recommended way to connect via SSH was to use a certificate?

      2. John 104

        Re: Wireshark is my shell...

        They aren't monitoring sound....

        They are deducing the timing between key strokes to figure out a character. The human finger takes x amount of time to travel between keys. Using this information is how the make the assumption on key stroke.

        The application for this vulnerability is interesting to me. The system is already compromised at this point, so data theft or corruption is not the name of the game. With this method, it isn't obvious that the system was hacked and a user being proxied. No, the deed is done with valid credentials, making the forensic portion of this difficult for the defendant. A haxxor could use this to steal credentials, do nefarious deeds, and have it pinned on the jacked user. Want to get an executive at a rival company fired for watching kiddie porn? These sort of events affect a companies standing on the stock market (I still don't know why). You could buy low or promote your own rival company as better, etc.

        1. J. Cook Silver badge

          Re: Wireshark is my shell...

          Yes, but there are still easier ways of doing that....

          1. Joe W Silver badge

            Re: Wireshark is my shell...

            Did anyone read the article? They monitor their own data flow and how this fills up the cache, not the victim's outgoing data - though that has also been used a few years back (got some deja vu) for a similar timing attack.

            1. DJ Smiley

              Re: Wireshark is my shell...

              Did you read the comments? There's a whole lot more data than just the SSH data going in and out of the cache.

      3. TheMeerkat Bronze badge

        Re: Wireshark is my shell...

        How would you associate key pressed with timing? It differs from person to person, so you need to calibrate it against know I put from the person. And, most importantly, when we type password, something that we type every day multiple times, the timing would be different from normal text.

        1. Charles 9 Silver badge

          Re: Wireshark is my shell...

          Physics. Most people develop a certain style of typing that can be easy to pick out. Plus, most of us are trained in touch-typing which involves certain layouts of both the fingers and keys. Because of the movements involved, it's a lot faster to press an F or a J compared to say a Q or a P. That's where the pattern recognition starts.

          1. Gonzo wizard

            "most of us are trained in touch-typing"

            Granted that secretarial staff are trained to touch type, and that I've met the odd person who has chosen to do this training... in thirty years of software engineering and eight years of mainly pairing I've seen no evidence that even a visible minority of IT people have been trained in touch typing. Excluding IT and secretaries that minority will be all but invisible.

            1. Anonymous Coward
              Anonymous Coward

              Re: "most of us are trained in touch-typing"

              Agreed. I can type as fast, if not faster, than a trained touch typist (approx 90wpm, not world beating I know, but fast nonetheless)...but I don't use typical touch typing technique. My hands are all over the place...trying to work out my typing pattern would be hard, because I don't actually have one...especially if I'm at a desk with two keyboards where I generally type one handed.

            2. AndyD 8-)₹

              Re: "most of us are trained in touch-typing"

              my experience over the last 40 years or so is that most American IT professionals touchtype, some 'Europeans' can, but hardly any Brits!

          2. deive

            Re: Wireshark is my shell...

            assuming you're using a qwerty keyboard....

      4. Tom 38

        Re: Wireshark is my shell...

        The unlikely next step is that the user types in a SSH password. Who types in a SSH password these days? I might type in a keyphrase to decrypt my private key, but that doesn't go over the wire.

        1. ibmalone Silver badge

          Re: Wireshark is my shell...

          It goes beyond that though, since it theoretically would let you spy on everything typed into the ssh session after login too. Which would include any passwords entered within the session.

      5. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Wireshark is my shell...

        ...or use key based authentication like a sensible person.

  2. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Innocent accidental?

    How many of these Intel exploits are innocent VS. an intentional catch me if you can for the NSA, FBI or anyone knowing where to stab?

    And which department is in charge of these mistakes?

    A. Federal Bureau of Intel

    B. Central Intel Agency

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Innocent accidental?

      Actually the CIA is Central INTELligence Agency... ya just had to finish the word

      1. John 104

        Re: Innocent accidental?

        And it isn't FBIntel. It's Investigation. Unless that was an intended pun?

        1. Alister

          Re: Innocent accidental?

          Unless that was an intended pun?

          Ya think?

        2. Kabukiwookie Silver badge

          Re: Innocent accidental?

          It's back to John 101.

        3. Kane Silver badge

          Re: Innocent accidental?

          Wooosh and...

      2. Kane Silver badge

        Re: Innocent accidental?


  3. Brian Miller

    Local access and you get ever so much!

    So first, the attacker has to monitor all of the server's traffic, like be on a hub or a switch with port mirroring. Then the attacker floods the fsck out of the network card. Then the user sits down and types their password. And then timing analysis dictates decipherment of the characters.

    Let's see, the last time I typed in a SSH password was to access my Raspberry Pi toys on my local network.

    Yeah, sure, it's a vulnerability, and it can be "corrected" in the SSH client, or by being kind of spastic on the keyboard. I wonder if their timing analysis takes all of the backspacing for mistakes into account.

    1. Graham Cobb Silver badge

      Re: Local access and you get ever so much!

      No, they don't monitor the server's traffic, that is the whole point. If they could monitor the server's traffic they could see the pauses directly.

      The point is that a process on the server can effectively work out the timing of packets being received (for sessions they do not own). Not very practical for this particular attack: if the server is receiving other traffic it becomes useless - and, anyway, who types in passwords if they are using SSH - anyone with assets to protect will use public keys. But the sort of thing that could become part of a larger attack toolbox and a previously unimagined side-channel attack.

      1. Crypto Monad

        Re: Local access and you get ever so much!

        > If they could monitor the server's traffic they could see the pauses directly.

        Which is a much bigger hole than this one. Even someone *listening* to your typing can attack this way.

        Solution: use a password manager for all your passwords. Then you paste them in one big splurge, with no gaps. This is an easy and comprehensive solution, and of course lets you use strong random passwords too.

        Using RSA/EC private key authentication for ssh helps too - but you're still going to end up typing some passwords over ssh sessions (e.g. sudo password)

  4. karlkarl Silver badge

    If you type fast enough you can get your entire password into one sent frame. Saved by Nagle's algorithm ;)

    1. It's just me

      Except Nagle is often disabled for interactive sessions such as SSH.

  5. Anonymous South African Coward Silver badge

    Sheep farming in the boondocks far away from all things IT is starting to sound better by the day.

  6. John 104


    Name is already taken.

    1. tfewster

      Re: NetCAT?

      NetCack would have been more descriptive, less confusing and met most of the researchers "objectives" for a name.

      Of course, netcat and Linux are known for being hackers tools - Is your son a computer hacker?

  7. fidodogbreath Silver badge

    Not going to lose sleep over this one. If someone is positioned on my network in such a way as to perform this attack, it's already game over.

    1. Mage Silver badge
      Black Helicopters

      already game over

      This maybe adds the set and match?

      It's interesting and likely of use to someone somewhere eventually, even if only a character on the same LAN down the hall in a techno-thriller.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      This is a tool that takes you from host access to obtaining other credentials to then allow you to move to game over.

      The problem is that you don't necessarily need the host to have been compromised, legitimate access for a third party to the host may also allow them you to capture information that allows privilege escalation via other accounts.

      It goes back to a defence in-depth strategy - it's not sufficient to just control access to a remotely accessible host, you have to also control what that host is able to access.

  8. Spamfast

    As far as I can see, this technique can't be used to determine the password the user uses to log onto the "RDMA Server" (see diagram) via ssh.

    If we're talking about the authentication of the SSH session itself over the NIC<->NIC link shown in the diagram, the password is sent all at once after the user hits return when using the normal command line openssh client. It's not sent character by character in separate TCP datagrams as you type the individual characters, so there's no typing timing information to analyze. PuTTY/WinSCP etc do the same.

    If you're using pubkey encryption, your password is never sent over the network at all - you type it in to decrypt your private key on your machine ("Victim Machine" in the diagram) and the private key is used to establish your identity via a challenge/response mechanism. The private key doesn't go across the network either. (Always use pubkey if you can!)

    I can only imagine this working if you're already in a ssh-connected shell or tunnelled RDP/VNC session on "RDMA Server" and have to enter your local account password when sudoing or logging in using a graphical greeter.

    Or am I missng something?

    1. Blazde

      It leaks the timing of everything typed inside the SSH session. So yea you're correct, not the initial authentication, but leaking a password is sort of the worst-case but completely plausible scenario if you logged in and immediately change your password, tunnel elsewhere, use sudo, login to an http interface on a nearby router, etc, etc. All kinds of other useful surveillance could be done too without ever capturing a password.

      Arguably the one marked 'victim machine' is really the victim's machine and the RDMA server is the victim machine? but it's just semantics.

      1. Muppet Boss

        The whole thing sounds like bull***t to me, "to be formally published in May next year". Ok, they legitimately got themselves DMA to the victim machine. Next thing they are doing, trying to guess keystrokes by measuring pauses between key presses? Ah, they are in Amsterdam?..

  9. GnuTzu

    CVE Link

    Come on El Reg. We love ya, but could we please get CVE links? Searching for "CVE" didn't even mention whether a CVE existed.

    And, there are InfoSec people following the El Reg's Security news. We won't break if you post a link to the full CVSS score. It would be helpful to us all and educational for some. Really, it's stuff worth know--and it's stuff worth understanding.

    Again, we love ya, but "(CVSS score of 2.6)" in parenthesis is a little weak and a little insulting.

  10. fobobob

    Joke's on them!

    My tpying is so full of fumbkling that tyhey're unlikelyi ot get a baseline ion the first place!

  11. Henry Wertz 1 Gold badge

    old switches

    My friend had some pretty old switch, when the activity lights did not light up a half second or second at a time, but flickered with activity. You could easily tell apart interactive telnet/ssh, some ftp type file transfer, some samba or nfs style mount, apart just by seeing how it flickered (ftp of course pretty well lit it up solid). They vendors quit doing that (in favor of updating maybe a time or 2 a second) because apparently the leds responded quick enough to at least read back 10mbps data off the light flickers.

    Interesting though, you may not get the password directly but i'm sure that timing info can greatly reduce the search space at least.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: old switches

      Power management.

      No doubt technology and accuracy has progressed so far, that there are probably old switches that you could figure out the byte code contents of packets by the LED brightness alone.

  12. carl0s

    Tbh I'm surprised SSH sends password keypresses to the remote end like telnet. I would have thought the password was captured client-side and then dealt with in some secure manner.

    Are they meaning they capture you logging in to another system from the side-channel-monitored system? So you are already on a remote session from machine A to machine B, typing away, and you SSH from machine B to machine C, while some code on machine B infers your keypresses from the network packets coming from machine A to machine B? That sounds like it would make sense.

    1. Peter Gathercole Silver badge


      If you use password authentication with SSH (rather than keys), the password will pass, all-be-it encrypted, across the network.

      Some organizations prefer this over public/private key pairs with passphrases, because it gives them some control over the frequency and strength of the password used, as it can be expired and checked at the time it is changed. If you use keys with passphrases, with bog-standard SSH, you cannot expire a passphrase, and I've not seen a passphrase strength checker in the SSH implementations I've seen.

      You also have the problem if the private key leaks, even if you change the passphrase on the primary copy of the key, the stolen copies will still have the old passphrase associated with them.

      I know you can (and should!) get round these weaknesses by using some form of network key repository with auto key regeneration (to allow keys to be aged), or at least using ssh-agent, or maybe even Kerberos (I've used Kerberos, but not the Kerberos support built into OpenSSH), but many organizations think that just implementing SSH is enough. I've never rocked the boat by suggesting anything better, but then again, I've not been in early enough for most of the projects I've been working on to get it accepted early enough.

      1. -tim

        Re: @carl0s

        SSH can be configured to use both a key and a server based password. If your key has a password, then you might have to enter the keys password, the system password and a one time password. System passwords are an additional obstacle to a hackers when users end up putting their private key on too many systems or are otherwise negligent in protecting their keys.

    2. Spamfast

      I'm surprised SSH sends password keypresses to the remote end like telnet

      When authenticating the secure shell session itself using a mechanism that requires the password to be sent to the server ("PasswordAuthentication on" or "ChallengeResponseAuthentication on" in /etc/sshd_config - which I never allow!) then the password is sent (encrypted) across the channel. But it is sent all at once, after you've entered all of it on your client and hit Enter (or clicked OK in a GUI client).

      It's never sent character by character as you type it in so this exploit can't work for determining the password for the login.

      Once you're logged in to an interactive session (terminal or tunnelled RDP/VNC graphical) then, yes, individual keystrokes are sent one at a time. So as has been pointed out, if you enter a password at that point you're potentially vulnerable.

  13. JakeMS
    Thumb Up

    SSH Keys

    Now I don't feel so bad about having 9 different SSH keys on my computer, each with a unique password.

    Luckily an SSH key password is entered entirely locally and into an SSH Agent. So, simply no (remote) password sniffing possible.

    But, of course. Even with keys, if your keys are stolen it could be game over regardless.

  14. ankitpati

    Press Ctrl + S to Save Yourself Against this Exploit

    There’s a very simple mitigation against this exploit, already built right into (almost) every terminal (and terminal emulator) since the first (physical) one: Flow Control.

    Just press Ctrl + S before entering sensitive information into a terminal, and press Ctrl + Q when done.

    For improved usability, avoid using this with non-sensitive information, like regular UNIX commands. Only use for passwords, and perhaps secret file/directory names on a web server.

    What happens is that the terminal queues your input between those two keystrokes, and sends it all at once, obliterating any timing information. Ctrl + S and Ctrl + Q are themselves not sent over the wire.

    1. Natalie Gritpants Jr Silver badge

      Re: Press Ctrl + S to Save Yourself Against this Exploit

      Won't work, ctrl-s suspends output from the computer to terminal. It doesn't stop your keypresses going to the remote end.

      1. ankitpati

        Re: Press Ctrl + S to Save Yourself Against this Exploit

        Works fine.

        Simple test:

        1. Open a terminal on any Linux system. iTerm2 on macOS does not support flow control.

        2. Press Ctrl + S.

        3. Blindly type `sleep 5` (ignore the back-ticks, and mind the space in between).

        4. Press Enter/Return.

        5. Wait 10 seconds.

        6. Press Ctrl + Q.

        7. Observe what happens!

  15. Peter Galbavy

    Sorry? What? Who uses SSH without an agent on their local machine? Why is SSH (as a protocol) singled out here? Any interactive session over the network is open to this form of "attack" and if you type SSH passwords into remote machines over the network (whether already SSH wrapped ot not) you are already broken.

    1. really_adf

      Why is SSH (as a protocol) singled out here?

      Because it's by far the most likely way to access a machine with an application warranting the vulnerable infrastructure requirements?

  16. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Tip from a greybeard - swap hands.

    Many years ago I decided that passwords and PINs should be typed with the non dominant hand. Mainly because the entire world is set up for rightys (and I am nominally a righty) and the contortions involved mean that you'll never manage it the same way twice - and obscure the view of anyone behind you.

    Another tip is to never enter the correct password the first time ....

  17. Dazed and Confused

    SSH Timing attacks

    Am I loosing my marbles?

    I'm sure I remember reading decades ago about a proposed attack on SSH based on the timing of peoples typing. Someone presented a paper on this and the response of the SSH maintainers was to introduce a randomised packet delay to defeat the attack.

    1. Alister

      Re: SSH Timing attacks

      Am I loosing my marbles?

      Dunno, did you drop them?

      Or maybe you are losing them?

    2. Blazde

      Re: SSH Timing attacks

      A random delay in an interactive session would get annoying before it came close to properly defeating the attack. A better option is to send a constant stream of packets at a regular interval, inserting dummies when no key has been pressed. This is the original comprehensive paper on SSH traffic analysis, and research around that time did lead to some improvements in various implementations:

      (Note that this new attack is about getting timing data from the Intel chipset, where you can't otherwise observe network traffic. Attacking SSH is just used an example of one possible use for this timing data).

      1. Dazed and Confused

        Re: SSH Timing attacks

        I knew someone here would have tighter marbles than me :-)


  18. Unicornpiss


    I imagine the CIA or something already can do an analysis of someone's typing rhythm to figure out passwords. I remember somewhere reading that the sound of someone typing can be used to deduce what characters are being typed too. I don't expect either method works all that well when you get someone that never learned to touch type pecking away at the keyboard, or someone that fat-fingers part of their password, hits backspace a few times, then types in the rest. Which is a technique I sometimes use if someone is annoyingly watching me when I type in mine.

    If I'm understanding the article correctly, it probably doesn't work all that well when someone is using an on-screen keyboard, such as with a tablet or phone. Either way, I don't think it's going to help you much with an already secure password that includes special characters and a mix of upper and lower-case letters, as many people that can even touch type break up their rhythm to look at the keyboard for some symbols or numbers.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Rhythm..

      This is done routinely. And works pretty well, against folks who have the habit of keeping their self-bought NSA microphone, aka "smartphone", on their desk next to keyboard.

  19. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Passwords ?

    I've set all my SSH boxen up with key based authentication.

  20. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Van Eck?

    This reminds me of that method of reading the electromagnetic spectrum of a CRT monitor to copy its contents.

    Half is conspiracy theory, half is true... finding which is which is the best part. Truck loads of salt.

    Yeah, wikipedia sucks, but it's the starting point to search for serious info.

    Don't rely on Wikipedia, but don't dismiss it either. It is better to have some information that you don't believe, than having none at all.

    Filling a cache to get the timing of keystrokes is borderline James Bond.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Van Eck?

      No idea which is worse, digital or analogue. But someone over at Defcon conference showed how with an amature radio reciver, and a noisy Laptop LCD controller, it was giving out the entire screen contents over the air.

      Not conspiracy, just how easy or valuable the target is, and if the hammer and wrench are alternatives or not.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Van Eck?

        "Hammer and wrench" appear strictly in the endgame, when it is time for you to sign your confession in the torture chamber. First usually preceded by couple of years in which to "commit the crimes", i.e. get talked by provocateurs into becoming indictable "conspirator", get "evidence" planted on your box, etc. This is what the subtle taps are for.

  21. itzman
    Paris Hilton

    Well! my hunt peck !miss !delete and !re-enter style...

    ...ought to be safe since even I don't know what I typed in half the time

    ...and the other half I cut and paste, thus sending it all in one packet..

  22. waldo kitty

    non-trivial to exploit...

    yeah, non-trivial to exploit but if you're in this deep, you're in the gold vault anyway... it is just a matter of picking out what you want from all the other gold things that may not be so valuable...

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  • Intel to sell Massachusetts R&D site, once home to its only New England fab
    End of another era as former DEC facility faces demolition

    As Intel gets ready to build fabs in Arizona and Ohio, the x86 giant is planning to offload a 149-acre historic research and development site in Massachusetts that was once home to the company's only chip manufacturing plant in New England.

    An Intel spokesperson confirmed on Wednesday to The Register it plans to sell the property. The company expects to transfer the site to a new owner, a real-estate developer, next summer, whereupon it'll be torn down completely.

    The site is located at 75 Reed Rd in Hudson, Massachusetts, between Boston and Worcester. It has been home to more than 800 R&D employees, according to Intel. The spokesperson told us the US giant will move its Hudson employees to a facility it's leasing in Harvard, Massachusetts, about 13 miles away.

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  • Cisco warns of security holes in its security appliances
    Bugs potentially useful for rogue insiders, admin account hijackers

    Cisco has alerted customers to another four vulnerabilities in its products, including a high-severity flaw in its email and web security appliances. 

    The networking giant has issued a patch for that bug, tracked as CVE-2022-20664. The flaw is present in the web management interface of Cisco's Secure Email and Web Manager and Email Security Appliance in both the virtual and hardware appliances. Some earlier versions of both products, we note, have reached end of life, and so the manufacturer won't release fixes; it instead told customers to migrate to a newer version and dump the old.

    This bug received a 7.7 out of 10 CVSS severity score, and Cisco noted that its security team is not aware of any in-the-wild exploitation, so far. That said, given the speed of reverse engineering, that day is likely to come. 

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