SATAn Turns Hard Drive Cable Into Antenna To Defeat Air-Gapped Security

It seems like [Mordechai Guri]’s lab at Ben-Gurion University is the place where air-gapped computers go to die, or at least to give up their secrets. And this hack using a computer’s SATA cable as an antenna to exfiltrate data is another example of just how many side-channel attacks the typical PC makes available.

The exploit, deliciously designated “SATAn,” relies on the fact that the SATA 3.0 interface used in many computers has a bandwidth of 6.0 Gb/s, meaning that manipulating the computer’s IO would make it possible to transmit data from an air-gapped machine at around 6 GHz. It’s a complicated exploit, of course, and involves placing a transmitting program on the target machine using the usual methods, such as phishing or zero-day exploits. Once in place, the transmitting program uses a combination of read and write operations on the SATA disk to generate RF signals that encode the data to be exfiltrated, with the data lines inside the SATA cable acting as antennae.

SATAn is shown in action in the video below. It takes a while to transmit just a few bytes of data, and the range is less than a meter, but that could be enough for the exploit to succeed. The test setup uses an SDR — specifically, an ADALM PLUTO — and a laptop, but you can easily imagine a much smaller package being built for a stealthy walk-by style attack. [Mordechai] also offers a potential countermeasure for SATAn, which basically thrashes the hard drive to generate RF noise to mask any generated signals.

While probably limited in its practical applications, SATAn is an interesting side-channel attack to add to [Dr. Guri]’s list of exploits. From optical exfiltration using security cameras to turning power supplies into speakers, the vulnerabilities just keep piling up.

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Controller Swaps Can Save An HDD If You Do It Right

Hard drives are fragile and reliable all at once. It’s entirely possible to have a hard drive fail, even if your data is still in perfect condition on the magnetic platters inside. [Keith Sherry] was recently trying to recover data for a friend off a damaged hard drive, and demonstrated that modern twists on old tricks can still work.

The drive in question was an old 160GB disk that itself was being used as a backup. Of course, a backup you haven’t tested is no backup at all, and this one failed in the hour it was most needed.

The suspicion was that the controller board was the culprit, and that swapping the board out might bring things back to life. Back in the day, this was a common hacker trick. However, it often fails with modern drives, which store a great deal of drive-specific calibration data on the controller board. Without this specific data, another controller will be unable to access the data on the drive, and could even cause damage.

However, as [Keith] demonstrates, there is a way around this. A controller from a similar drive was sourced, albeit from a SATA version of the drive versus the original which used USB. A single chip is then removed from the original controller, containing the calibration data specific to that drive. Soldering this chip onto the new controller got everything up and running, and the files could be recovered.

If your data is invaluable, it’s likely worth paying a professional. As [Keith] demonstrates though, the old tricks can still come in handy as long as your techniques are up to date. DIYing your own data recovery can be done, it’s just risky is all.

Oh, and don’t forget — once you’ve recovered the files, throw the drive away. Don’t keep using it! Video after the break.

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Graphene lattice

How Graphene May Enable The Next Generations Of High-Density Hard Drives

After decades of improvements to hard disk drive (HDD) technology, manufacturers are now close to taking the next big leap that will boost storage density to new levels. Using laser-assisted writes, manufacturers like Seagate are projecting 50+ TB HDDs by 2026 and 120+ TB HDDs after 2030. One part of the secret recipe is heat-assisted magnetic recording (HAMR).

One of the hurdles with implementing HAMR is finding a protective coating for the magnetic media that can handle this frequent heating while also being thinner than current coatings, so that the head can move even closer to the surface. According to a recent paper by N. Dwivedi et al. published in Nature Communications, this new protective coating may have been found in the form of sheets of graphene.

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Transparent Hard Drive Gives Peek At The Platters

Solid-state drives (SSDs) are all the rage these days, and for good reason. But that doesn’t mean the era of the spinning disk is over, as traditional mechanical hard drives still offer a compelling value for mass storage applications where access times aren’t as critical. But the components inside these “slow” mechanical drives are still moving at incredible speeds, which [The Developer Guy] has nicely illustrated with his transparent hard drive.

Now unfortunately the technology to produce a fully transparent hard drive doesn’t exist, but laser cutting a new top plate out of acrylic is certainly within the means of the average hacker. The process is pretty straightforward: cut out a piece of clear plastic in the same shape and size as the drive’s original lid, put the appropriate mounting holes in it, and find some longer screws to accommodate the increased thickness.

Because this is just for a demonstration, [The Developer Guy] doesn’t need to worry too much about dust or debris getting on the platters; but we should note that performing this kind of modification on a drive you intend on actually using would be a bad idea unless you’ve got a cleanroom to work in.

In the videos below [The Developer Guy] records the drive while it’s in use, and at one point puts a microscope on top of the plastic to get a close-up view of the read/write head twitching back and forth. We particularly liked the time-lapse of the drive being formatted, as you can see the arm smoothly moving towards the center of the drive. Unfortunately the movement of the platters themselves is very difficult to perceive given their remarkably uniform surface, but make no mistake, they’re spinning at several thousand RPM.

Have an old mechanical drive of your own that you’re not sure what to do with? We’ve seen them turned into POV clocks, impromptu rotary encoders, and even surprisingly powerful blower fans.

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Bespoke Storage Technologies: The Alphabet Soup Found In Modern Hard Drives And Beyond

It seems like just yesterday (maybe for some of you it was) we were installing Windows 3.1 off floppy drives onto a 256 MB hard drive, but hard drives have since gotten a lot bigger and a lot more complicated, and there are a lot more options than spinning platters.

The explosion of storage options is the result of addressing a variety of niches of use. The typical torrenter downloads a file, which is written once but read many times. For some people a drive is used as a backup that’s stored elsewhere and left unpowered. For others it is a server frequently reading and writing data like logs or swap files. In all cases it’s physics that sets the limits of what storage media can do; if you choose wisely for your use case you’ll get the bet performance.

The jargon in this realm is daunting: superparamagnetic limit, LMR, PMR, CMR, SMR, HAMR, MAMR, EAMR, XAMR, and QLC to name the most common. Let’s take a look at how we got here, and how the past and present of persistent storage have expanded what the word hard drive actually means and what is found under the hood.

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Hard Disk Drives Have Made Precision Engineering Commonplace

Modern-day hard disk drives (HDDs) hold the interesting juxtaposition of being simultaneously the pinnacle of mass-produced, high-precision mechanical engineering, as well as the most scorned storage technology. Despite being called derogatory names such as ‘spinning rust’, most of these drives manage a lifetime of spinning ultra-smooth magnetic storage platters only nanometers removed from the recording and reading heads whose read arms are twitching around using actuators that manage to position the head precisely above the correct microscopic magnetic trace within milliseconds.

Despite decade after decade of more and more of these magnetic traces being crammed on a single square millimeter of these platters, and the simple read and write heads being replaced every few years by more and more complicated ones, hard drive reliability has gone up. The second quarter report from storage company Backblaze on their HDDs shows that the annual failure rate has gone significantly down compared to last year.

The question is whether this means that HDDs stand to become only more reliable over time, and how upcoming technologies like MAMR and HAMR may affect these metrics over the coming decades.

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