This picture was taken by using a DRAM chip as an image sensor (translated). A decapped 64k DRAM chip was combined with optics that could focus an image onto the die. By reading data out of the DRAM, the image could be constructed.
DRAM is the type of RAM you find on the RAM cards inserted into your motherboard. It consists of a massive array of capacitors and transistors. Each bit requires one transistor and one capacitor, which is quite efficient. The downside is that the memory needs to be refreshed periodically to prevent the capacitors from discharging.
Exposing the capacitor to light causes it to discharge faster. Once it has discharged past a certain threshold, the bit will flip from one to zero. To take a picture, ones are written to every bit in the DRAM array. By timing how long it takes a bit to flip from one to zero, the amount of light exposure can be determined. Since the DRAM is laid out in an array, each bit can be treated as a pixel to reconstruct the image.
Sure, modern CCDs are better, cheaper, and faster, but this hack is a neat way to totally re-purpose a chip. There’s even Turbo Pascal source if you’d like to recreate the project.
A few months ago, [Josh] was given an old Commodore 64. He needed to make an AV cable and find a new power supply, and even after testing these new parts out, [Josh] found it still wouldn’t boot. Not one to look a gift horse in the mouth — or perhaps he enjoys the challenge — he set out on restoring a thirty year old circuit board.
He replaced a few chips and the caps, but found he had no way to test the DRAM chips. Compared to SRAM or Static RAM used by other computers of the era, DRAM is a bit harder to interface, requiring a capacitor in each memory cell to be refreshed a few dozen times every second. With a bit of help from his good friend [CNLohr], [Josh] figured out a circuit to read and write to his chips and build a small board based on the ATmega8U2 microcontroller for testing purposes.
For the longest time, hardware tinkerers have only been able to play around with two types of memory. RAM, including Static RAM and Dynamic RAM, can be exceedingly fast but is volatile and loses its data when power is removed. Non-volatile memory such as EPROMS, EEPROMS, and Flash memory retains its state after power is removed, but these formats are somewhat slower.
There have always been competing technologies that sought to combine the best traits of these types of memory, but not often have they been available to hobbyists. [Majenko] got his hands on a few MRAM chips – Magneto-Resistive RAM – and decided to see what they could do.
Magneto-Resistive RAM uses tiny pairs of magnetic plates to read and write 1s and 0s. [Majenko] received a sample of four MRAM chips with an SPI bus (it might be this chip, 4 Megabits for $20, although smaller capacity chips are available for about $6). After wiring these chips up on a home-made breakout board, [Majenko] had 16 Megabits of non-volatile memory that was able to run at 40 MHz.
The result was exactly what the datasheet said: very fast write and read times, with the ability to remove power. Unlike EEPROMS that can be destroyed by repeated reading and writing, MRAM has an unlimited number of write cycles.
While MRAM may be a very young technology right now, it’s a wonderful portent of things to come. In 20 (or 30, or 40) years, it’s doubtful any computer from the largest server to the smallest microcontroller will have the artificial separation between disk space and memory. The fact that any hardware hacker is able to play around with this technology today is somewhat amazing, and we look forward to more builds using MRAM in the future.
If you haven’t gotten a chance yet, do watch the video of this attack. It’s does a good job explaining the problem. Full drive encryption stores the key in RAM while the computer is powered on. The RAM’s stored data doesn’t immediately disappear when powered off, but fades over time. To recover the keys, they powered off the computer and booted from a USB disk that created an image of the RAM. You can read more about the attack here.
How can you reduce this threat? You can turn off USB booting and then put a password on the BIOS to prevent the specific activity shown in the video. Also, you can encrypt your rarely used data in a folder on the disk. They could still decrypt the disk, but they won’t get everything. I don’t think this problem will truly be fixed unless there is a fundamental change in hardware design to erase the RAM and even then it would probably only help computers that are powered off, not suspended.
The potential for this attack has always been talked about and I’m glad to see someone pull it off. I’m hoping to see future research into dumping RAM data using a USB/ExpressCard with DMA access.