Is a Truly Air-Gapped Wallet Possible?

Team Cypherock
Team Cypherock
November 7, 2023 7 min read
Is a Truly Air-Gapped Wallet Possible?

Is a Truly Air-Gapped Wallet Possible?

In the realm of cryptocurrency security, the term “air-gapped wallet” has gained significant attention and reverence. This concept refers to a crypto wallet that is entirely disconnected from any computer or network, most notably the Internet. It is a security measure that physically isolates a device from an untrusted network, aiming to provide the utmost protection for your digital assets. But is the hype around air-gapped wallets justified, or is it more of a myth? Let’s delve into the details.

What do you mean by the term “Air-Gap”?

The term “Air-Gap” denotes a security measure aimed at physically isolating a device from untrusted networks, notably the internet, by eliminating all network interfaces. It serves as a fundamental security principle, frequently employed in critical infrastructure scenarios. While this isolation serves as a robust defense mechanism, practical operational needs often necessitate the exchange of data with network-connected devices, effectively bridging the “air gap.” This data transfer process typically employs USB flash drives or SD cards. The security of an air-gapped system hinges on ensuring that the exchanged data remains untampered and free from malicious alterations during its transfer. This concept offers a level of protection that is among the highest attainable, effectively segregating one network from another.

To facilitate data transfer between the isolated air-gapped system and external environments, a common practice involves copying data onto a portable storage medium, such as a removable disk or USB flash drive, and physically transporting this storage medium to the target system.

However, it is imperative to exercise stringent control over this access since USB drives themselves may harbor vulnerabilities. In fact, highly sophisticated computer viruses tailored for cyberwarfare, exemplified by Stuxnet and agent.btz, have been meticulously engineered to infiltrate air-gapped systems by exploiting security weaknesses associated with the handling of removable media.

What is an Air-Gapped Wallet?

An air-gapped wallet is a specialized cryptocurrency wallet that maintains complete disconnection from the internet and all network interfaces. It functions in a state of absolute isolation, devoid of any connections via USB, Bluetooth, or WiFi. Instead, it relies on alternative methods of communication, such as microSD cards or QR codes. These methods are employed for essential and basic functions like signing transactions, storing backups, and performing firmware updates.

The Rising Popularity of Air-Gapped Wallets

The surge in interest surrounding air-gapped wallets can be attributed to the perception that their physical isolation from the online world makes them impervious to hacking attempts. In other words, if it’s not connected to anything, it can’t be hacked, right? This notion has fueled the growing popularity of air-gapped wallets among cryptocurrency enthusiasts. Many hardware wallet vendors have also joined this trend by promoting air-gapped wallets as a more secure and protected option for users. Let’s deep dive and explore whether air-gapped wallets indeed deliver enhanced security compared to their traditional counterparts.

Comparing Air-Gapped Wallets to USB Hardware Wallets

To understand the allure of air-gapped wallets, it’s essential to contrast their operation with that of USB-connected wallets. Both involve data exchange between the wallet and a computer or mobile device, but the manner of exchange differs significantly.

Looming Vulnerability

In the case of an air-gapped wallet, the exchange occurs through a companion application that generates an unsigned transaction. You initiate an unsigned transaction within the application, which is then conveyed to the hardware wallet either by scanning a QR code or by reading data from a microSD card. The hardware wallet subsequently signs the transaction offline, utilizing its private key. This signed transaction is then returned to the computer through a QR code scan or via a microSD card for broadcasting on the network.

Conversely, USB-connected wallets also entail offline preparation of unsigned transactions via the companion application. These unsigned transactions are then transmitted to the hardware wallet using a USB connection. The hardware wallet proceeds to sign the transaction offline with its private key and transmits the signed transaction back to the computer through USB. Subsequently, the computer broadcasts this signed transaction to the blockchain network.

If you take a closer look, you’ll realize that both air-gapped wallets and standard USB wallets involve the exchange of data. Whether you’re signing a transaction or undergoing the device authentication process, data flows between your PC or mobile device and your wallet. The critical distinction lies in how this data or information is exchanged. In essence, data is still being transferred between the computer and the air-gapped hardware wallet; it’s just that the medium of transfer has shifted from a USB cable to a microSD card or QR code.

What truly matters, however, is not the method of data transfer but the content or data itself. This “what” - the data - can still be vulnerable to a compromise. A notable vulnerability to take into account is the potential infiltration of malware capable of manipulating communication and effecting undetected alterations. For instance, during a firmware update via microSD, the firmware could be tampered with maliciously, and attackers could inject code to modify receiving addresses or alter change addresses. This could result in financial losses for users, as their funds may be unintentionally sent to addresses they did not intend to use. QR codes can also be maliciously altered on multiple levels (the QR code would contain the address and the amount of coin you want to send), including through backdoors introduced by an upstream library that controls camera images or rendering of QR codes, camera firmware, or by malware running on the host. Notably, USB communication does not offer inherent protection against this particular attack vector. This emphasizes that the integrity of communication can still be compromised, regardless of whether it’s an air-gapped wallet or a conventional standard wallet.

Furthermore, when utilizing microSD cards or QR codes for communication, it’s essential to take into account that microSD cards themselves contain a microcontroller, which could potentially be running firmware susceptible to exploitation by hackers. Essentially, you are still connecting a mini-computer (which could be tampered with) to your hardware wallet. This concept of potential attack surfaces similarly applies to USB software drivers, as they may depend on external software library dependencies, much like camera drivers and SD card drivers. It’s important to note that privacy can be compromised by shoulder surfing and surveillance cameras observing QR codes or text displayed in an app or on the wallet screen. Given these considerations, it becomes evident that transitioning from USB to QR codes and microSD cards neither eliminates the risk of hacking nor reduces the attack surface.

The Fallacy of True Air Gaps

The core issue revolves around the misconception of achieving an absolute “air gap”. In reality, even with the abandonment of USB in favor of microSD cards or QR codes, data transfer remains a necessity. The air gap, on its own, does not inherently boost security. Instead, the crux of the matter lies in how the wallet inspects and validates received data. The security of the hardware wallet fundamentally relies on the integrity of the transferred data and how effectively it is analyzed and verified by the wallet. The hardware wallet’s architecture and firmware should be designed to detect any malicious changes to its code or tampering with the device. In essence, it’s the robustness of these security measures, rather than the mere presence of an air gap, that truly enhances the wallet’s security.

Operations that require no external information, like creating a wallet seed, generating receive addresses, naming a wallet, or enabling/disabling a passphrase, can be conducted without any communication. This ‘no communication’ approach can reduce the attack surface and is applicable to most hardware wallets, even those not explicitly marketed as air-gapped. For instance, you can achieve this by running the wallet off a power bank to display a receive address on the hardware wallet’s screen.

However, it’s important to recognize that achieving a true, perpetual air gap, where wallets are completely isolated from external contact, is more of a myth than a reality. Such wallets would only be able to perform functions we discussed earlier, refraining from firmware updates and seed backup, because for these tasks, communication via external data transfer components like SD cards is still necessary. This level of isolation, however, is not practical for most cases and most wallets, as operations like firmware updates are essential.

Inherent Vulnerabilities

Air-gapped wallets, despite their perceived superiority, are not impervious to vulnerabilities. Attack vectors still exist, including EM emissions, deeply hidden trojans in the OS or application software, and even side-channel leaks via QR codes. These issues are fundamentally difficult to address and resolve. Ultimately, the trust we place in a hardware wallet hinges on its firmware’s integrity, ensuring that it remains free from malicious tampering.

In conclusion, air-gapped wallets do not provide enhanced security in the cryptocurrency realm compared to standard wallets. They also do not reduce the attack surface when compared to standard wallets. The method of data transfer matters less than the wallet’s architecture and its ability to safeguard against threats. True air gaps are elusive, and vulnerabilities persist. Security-conscious cryptocurrency users must remain vigilant, understanding that safety depends not only on the physical isolation of their wallets but also on the integrity of the devices themselves.

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