Our research on cold boot attacks on disk encryption has generated lots of interesting discussion. A few misconceptions seem to be floating around, though. I want to address one of them today.
As we explain in our paper, laptops are vulnerable when they are “sleeping” or (usually) “hibernating”. Frequently used laptops are almost always in these states when they’re not in active use – when you just close the lid on your laptop and it quiets down, it’s probably sleeping.
When a laptop goes to sleep, all of the data that was in memory stays there, but the rest of the system is shut down. When you re-open the lid of the laptop, the rest of the system is activated, and the system goes on running, using the same memory contents as before. (Hibernating is similar, but the contents of memory are copied off to the hard drive instead, then brought back from the hard drive when you re-awaken the machine.) People put their laptops to sleep, rather than shutting them down entirely, because a sleeping machine can wake up in seconds with all of the programs still running, while a fully shut-down machine will take minutes to reboot.
Now suppose an attacker gets hold of your laptop while it is sleeping, and suppose the laptop is using disk encryption. The attacker can take the laptop back to his lair, and then open the lid. The machine will reawaken, with the same information in memory that was there when you put the machine to sleep – and that information includes the secret key that is used to encrypt the files on your hard disk. The machine may be screen-locked – that is, it may require entry of your password before you can interact with the desktop – but the attacker won’t care. All he cares about is that the encryption key is in memory.
The attacker will then insert a special thumb drive into the laptop, yank out the laptop’s battery, quickly replace the battery, and push the power button to reboot the laptop. The encryption key will still be in memory – the memory will not have lost its contents because the laptop was without power only momentarily while the battery was out. It doesn’t matter how long the laptop takes to reboot, because the memory contents are fading only momentarily while the battery is out. When the laptop boots, software from the thumb drive will read the contents of memory, find the secret encryption key, and proceed to unlock the encrypted files on your hard drive.
In short, the adversary doesn’t need to capture your laptop while the laptop is open and in active use. All he needs is to get your laptop while it is sleeping – which it is probably doing most of the time.