If you don’t want your computer tampered with, or you want to be able to tell if someone’s been fiddling with your gear, a little glittery, shiny nail polish may be the perfect solution. A pair of security researchers presented the idea at the Chaos Communication Congress, and it’s surprisingly effective. Here’s why.
Security researchers Eric Michaud and Ryan Lackey got to thinking about the issue when they started looking over ways to make sure your laptop wasn’t tampered with when you travel with it. Security seals and screws are easy to remove cleanly and reattach by just about anyone, or even break and forge if you have to. The solution? A dab of glitter nail polish. The nail polish effectively creates a randomized pattern that’s only established once it’s set and dry—one that’s easy to apply, look at and memorize (or photograph), and then tell if it’s been altered in some way (or reapplied later to try and mimic the original look).
Other metallic paints, or even crappy stickers, can have the same effect, they say:
Some travelers affix tamper-proof seals over ports or chassis screws. But these seals can in fact be replicated or opened cleanly in minutes by anyone with even minimal training, Michaud and Lackey said. They instead advise borrowing a technique from astronomers called blink comparison. Here’s where the glitter comes in.
The idea is to create a seal that is impossible to copy. Glitter nail polish, once applied, has what effectively is a random pattern. Once painted over screws or onto stickers placed over ports, it is difficult to replicate once broken. However, reapplication of a similar-looking blob (or paint stripe, or crappy sticker) might be enough to fool the human eye. To be sure, the experts recommend taking a picture of the laptop with the seals applied before leaving it alone, taking another photo upon returning and using a software program to shift rapidly between the two images to compare them. Even very small differences – a screw that is in a very slightly different position, or glitter nail polish that has a very slightly different pattern of sparkle – will be evident. Astronomers use this technique to detect small changes in the night sky.
By taking the picture with a cellphone that is kept with you at all times, you can be reasonably sure the original picture hasn’t been tampered with or replaced.
The researchers go on to suggest that a two-factor authentication system using two correctly shot photos of the same glitter in the same pattern could be used to gain or deny access to the system—like a smartphone app that has the original photo on it, and is then used to take a photo of the current state of the glitter before you can log in. It’s unlikely to ever happen, but it would be effective.
In the interim though, if you’re worried someone’s going to crack open your case and modify your system, or you can to seal off your USB or other ports on your laptop, a sticker with a dab of glitter nail polish is just the trick you need to make sure no one’s fiddling with your devices.