Getting the jump on hackers

November 20, 2002

Blacksburg, Va., Nov. 20, 2002 -- Tom Martin is working to head culprits off at the pass. With a $400,000 National Science Foundation Information Technology Research (ITR) grant, Martin and colleagues Dong Ha and Michael Hsiao of the Bradley Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) at Virginia Tech are attempting to protect battery operated computers from security attacks that could drain their batteries.

Martin's own notebook computer gave him the idea for the project. One day the computer's fan started running--for no apparent reason--and draining the battery.

"I discovered that a hacker had broken into my computer and was running software so power-hungry that the fan came on," explained Martin, who also had recently read an article speculating that hackers could deliberately drain a battery.

In addition to direct attacks, hackers could develop viruses that would drain the battery in any type of computer, he said. Wireless devices also are vulnerable to battery attacks.

The Virginia Tech researchers are trying to find ways to build hardware and software that will enable battery operated computers and wireless devices to withstand such attacks. "Our project is aimed at creating rules and tools for the design of devices so their batteries can't be drained faster than expected under normal usage," Martin said.

Although cases of deliberate battery drainage have not yet proliferated, the potential for "denial of service" attacks poses concern for the wireless industry. "If your cell phone were frequently drained of power within 15 minutes, you'd stop using it or think that it was broken," Martin noted. "If hackers develop viruses that can drain your computer's battery at will, you'll be denied the service of that computer."

Martin also pointed out that in the 1980s no computer viruses existed. "But during the late 1980s and early 1990s, as computer use took off, viruses became a problem," he said. If Martin and his colleagues can develop built-in measures for preventing attacks on batteries, that particular problem may never have a chance to spread.

For more information about the research, contact Tom Martin at 540-231-1739 or

PR CONTACT: Liz Crumbley at 540-231-9772 or

Virginia Tech

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