A German company has come up with a program it claims can protect against the biggest weak spot of most encryption systems - keyloggers that record passphrases as they are entered.
Encryption is widely seen as a solution to the woes of data security, locking data behind near-unbreakable algorithms. But that assumes the password or phrase used to access the encrypted data is itself secure.
The system works around a virtual keyboard feature, built into the encryption utility TurboCrypt, which can encrypt keyboard characters on-the-fly, before keylogging or screen capture malware has had a chance to record what is being entered.
The system is said by its creators, PMC Ciphers, to be so secure, that it will work even if the computer is infested with malicious Trojans. The company also suggests that users test the tool by pitting it against commercial screen-grabbers or keyloggers.
The software exploits two interlocking concepts to render password or screen capture impossible in any practical sense. First, the virtual password entry screen for TurboCrypt's encryption function turns out to be a visual grid on which characters and numbers are drawn and deleted several times per second. The user chooses a character from within the flickering randomised grid, which then changes for the next character until the whole password has been entered.
Although difficult and slow to use - the flickering is incredibly distracting - it offers a very high level of security. The screen redraws faster than a capture utility can register the screen, while the grid changes randomly for every character entered, making it impossible for malware to relate mouse clicks to the on-screen image of the keyboard as a way of divining characters.
Second, underneath the hood, the software uses a number of ingenious techniques within the Windows task scheduler to keep out an incursion by a Trojan, such as raising its thread priority level to temporarily consume all the available CPU time on the first available CPU core. This effectively stops Trojans from loading processes at lower levels.
"It's flickering and somewhat exhausting to use, but this thing is one of the most decisive inventions in computer security," say its creators, who would like to implement the design in contexts such as banking website login if there is commercial interest.
TurboCrypt is available for Windows XP, and 32-bit and 64-bit versions of Vista free of charge up to a 32GB encrypted volume size as long as users register.