32C3: Inside Glorious Leader’s Operating System

North Korea is a surveillance state propped up by a totalitarian government infamous for human rights abuses and a huge military that serves the elite while the poor are left to fight over scraps. Coincidently, that’s exactly what North Korea says about the United States.

There is one significant difference between the two countries: North Korea has developed its own operating system for its citizens, called Red Star OS. It’s an operating system based on Linux, but that has a few interesting features that allow Glorious Leader to take care of his citizens. A deep teardown of what has gone into the development of Red Star OS hasn’t been available until now, with [Florian Grunow] and [Niklaus Schiess]’s talk at the Chaos Communication Congress this week.

Kim Jong-Un with an iMac
Kim Jong-Un with an iMac

The first question anyone must ask when confronted with an operating system built by a country that doesn’t have much electricity is, “why?” This question can only be answered philosophically; the late Kim Jong-Il stressed the importance of North Korea developing “their own style” of programming, and not relying on western operating systems. Nearly everything in Red Star has been modified, with a custom browser called Naenara, a crypto tool, a clone of Open Office, a software manager, and a custom music composition tool. Red Star also had to have the look and feel of OS X; that is, after all, what Glorious Leader uses.

Red Star goes much deeper than custom browsers and a desktop theme. There are other, subtler components inside the OS. There is a program that verifies the integrity of the system by checking signatures of the custom files against a database. If a file has been tampered with, the system reboots. Since this tamper check runs on bootup, Red Star makes it nearly impossible to modify files for study. This is one of the big features designed into Red Star – system integrity is paramount.

There are other custom bits of software that hide files from the user even if they have root, and a ‘virus scanner’ that is anything but. This virus scanner checks documents for patterns that, when put through Google Translate, are strange, weird, and somewhat understandable. Phrases like, “punishment”, “hungry”, and “strike with fists” are detected in all documents, and depending on what the developers decide, these documents can be deleted on a whim.

While scanning a system for documents that contain non-approved speech is abhorrent enough, there’s another feature that would make any privacy advocate weep. Media files including DOCX, JPG, PNG, and AVI files are watermarked by every computer that opened the files. This allows anyone to track the origin of a file, with the obvious consequences to free speech that entails.

While most people in the US consider North Korea to be a technological backwater and oppressive regime, the features that make Red Star OS useful to the DPRK are impressive. The developers touched nearly everything in Red Star, and the features inside it are rather clever and make their style of surveillance very useful. They’re also doing this without any apparent backdoors or other spycraft; they’re putting all their surveillance out in the open for all to see, which is, perhaps, the best way to go about it.

VOCore Tutorial Gets You Started with Tiny Router

[Vadim] wrote up this short but sweet tutorial on getting started with the Vocore (tiny) OpenWRT-router-on-a-stamp. If you need more computing power than you can get with an ESP8266, and you want an open-source Linux-plus-Wifi solution in a square inch of board space, the Vocore looks pretty sweet.

We covered the Vocore a while ago. It has 28 GPIOs, all accessible from system calls in OpenWRT. It becomes much more computer-like if you add a dock that breaks out the USB and Ethernet functionality, but that also doubles the price.

IMG_5299_tnGetting started with a no-frills Linux box (chip?) can be intimidating. So it’s a good thing that [Vadim] details a first setup of the Vocore over WiFi and SSH, and then takes you through a button-and-LED style ‘Hello World’ application that makes simple use of the GPIOs.

He says he’s going to interface it eventually with a TI CC110 sub-gig radio unit, but that’s going to involve writing some drivers and will take him some time. We’d love to see how to connect peripherals, so we’re waiting with bated breath.

[Vadim] also helpfully included an un-bricking script for the Vocore, which restores the default firmware and gets you out of whatever hole you’ve managed to dig yourself into. Basically, you connect to the device over a USB-Serial adapter, run his script, and you should be set.

Any of you out there using a Vocore? Or other OpenWRT routers? Give [Vadim]’s tutorial a glance and let us know what you think.

Drones Are Getting A Lot Smarter

[DJI], everyone’s favorite — but very expensive — drone company just announced the Manifold — an extremely capable high performance embedded computer for the future of aerial platforms. And guess what? It runs Ubuntu.

The unit features a quad-core ARM Cortex A-15 processor with an NVIDIA Keplar-based GPU and runs Canonical’s Ubuntu OS with support for CUDA, OpenCV and ROS. The best part is it is compatible with third-party sensors allowing developers to really expand a drone’s toolkit. The benefit of having such a powerful computer on board means you can collect and analyze data in one shot, rather than relaying the raw output down to your control hub.

And because of the added processing power and the zippy GPU, drones using this device will have new artificial intelligence applications available, like machine-learning and computer vision — Yeah, drones are going to be able to recognize and track people; it’s only a matter of time.

We wonder what this will mean for FAA regulations…

Delightfully Horrible Idea: Twitch Installs Linux

Linux is a delightful OS. There are an amazing range of built-in tools, and innumerable others that can be installed from publicly available repositories using just a single line of commands. You can also hose your entire system with just a handful of characters; something that was en vogue as a method of trolling many years ago. Who knows if either of those will get used when Twitch Installs Arch Linux.

Beginning on Saturday morning, a single keyboard will be controlled by thousands of people whose collective goal is to install a Linux distro in a virtual box. There will undoubtedly be thousands of others trying to thwart the process. We were enthralled with Twitch Plays Pokemon last year. Live viewers’ keystrokes were translated to the Game Boy controls and the majority consensus decided the next move. This was insane with just a few controls, but now we’re talking about an entire keyboard.

Every 10 seconds, the most popular keystroke will be chosen. To put this in perspective, the previous sentence would have taken exactly 10 minutes to type, and only if the majority constantly agreed on what the next letter should be. We can’t tell if it’s going to be interesting or boring to participate. But either way, we can’t wait to see what unforeseen happenings shake out of the process.

Google OnHub Can Has Root

It’s always nice to get down to the root directory of a device, especially if the device in question is one that you own. It’s no huge surprise that a Google product allows access to the root directory but the OnHub requires locating the hidden “developer mode” switch which [Maximus64] has done. The Google engineers have been sneaky with this button, locating it at the bottom of a threaded screw hole. Has anyone seen this implemented on other hardware before?

There isn’t a blog post regarding this, however [Maximus64] shared a video on YouTube walking us through the steps to root and un-root Google’s OnHub, which is embedded after the break. He also states “wiki coming soon” in the description of the video, so we’ll keep eye on it for an update.

We covered the product announcement back in August and have heard a few reviews/opinions about the device but not enough to make an opinionated assumption. Rooting the device doesn’t seem to increase the OnHub’s number of LAN ports but we think it’s still worth the effort.

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A Third Scale Mini PowerMac

We’re surrounded by tiny ARM boards running Linux, and one of the most popular things to do with these tiny yet powerful computers is case modding. We’ve seen Raspberry Pis in Game Boys, old Ataris, and even in books. [Aaron] decided it was time to fit a tiny computer inside an officially licensed bit of miniature Apple hardware and came up with the Mini PowerMac. It’s a 1/3rd scale model of an all-in-one Mac from 1996, and [Aaron] made its new hardware fit like a glove.

Instead of an old Mac modified with an LCD, or even a tiny 3D printed model like Adafruit’s Mini Mac Pi, [Aaron] is using an accessory for American Girl dolls released in 1996. This third-scale model of an all-in-one PowerPC Mac is surprisingly advanced for something that would go in a doll house. When used by American Girl dolls, it has a 3.25″ monochrome LCD that simulates the MacOS responding to mouse clicks and keypresses. If you want to see the stock tiny Mac in action, here’s a video.

The American Girl Mini Macintosh is hollow, and there’s a lot of space in this lump of plastic. [Aaron] tried to fit a Raspberry Pi in the case. A Pi wouldn’t fit. An ODROID-W did, and with a little bit of soldering, [Aaron] had a computer far more powerful than an actual PowerMac 5200. Added to this is a 3.5″ automotive rearview display, carefully mounted to the 1/3rd size screen bezel of the mini Mac.

The rest of the build is exactly what you would expect – a DC/DC step down converter, a USB hub, and a pair of dongles for WiFi and a wireless keyboard. The software for the ODROID-W is fully compatible with the Raspberry Pi, and a quick install of the Basilisk II Macintosh emulator and an installation of Mac OS 7.5.3 completed the build.

Tiny Headless Servers Everywhere

Quick, what do “cloud compute engines” and goofy Raspberry Pi Internet of Things hacks have in common? Aside from all being parody-worthy buzzword-fests, they all involve administering remote headless (Linux) installations. It’s for exactly that reason that a new Ubuntu distribution flavor, Ubuntu (Snappy) Core, targets both the multi-bazillion-dollar Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud and the $55 BeagleBone Black.

If that combination seems unlikely to you, you’re not alone. But read on as we hope to make a little more sense of it all.
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