Retrotechtacular: Social Hacking is Nothing New

If you watch enough mainstream TV and movies, you might think that hacking into someone’s account requires a huge monitor, special software, and intricate hand gestures. The reality is way more boring. Because people tend to choose bad passwords, if you have time, you can task a computer with quietly brute-forcing the password. Then again, not everyone has a bad password and many systems will enforce a timeout after failed attempts or require two-factor authentication, so the brute force approach isn’t what it used to be.

Turns out the easiest way to get someone’s password is to ask them for it. Sure, a lot of people will say no, but you’d be surprised how many people will tell you. That number goes up dramatically when you make them think you are with the IT department or their Internet provider. That’s an example of social engineering. You can define that many ways, but in this case it boils down to getting people to give you what you want based on making them believe you are something you aren’t.

Everything Old…

We think of social engineering as something new, but really–like most cybercrime–it is just the movement of old-fashioned crime to the digital world. What got me thinking about this is a service from Amazon called “Mechanical Turk.”

That struck me as odd when I first heard it because for product marketing it is pretty bad unless you are selling turkey jerky or something. If you tell me “Amazon Simple Storage Service” I can probably guess what that might be. But what’s Mechanical Turk?

Mechanical Turk

Continue reading “Retrotechtacular: Social Hacking is Nothing New”

Letting people on the Internet control your dating experience


Like Cyrano giving advice to Christian from underneath Roxanne’s balcony, now you too can can advise young suitors trying to win the heart of the object of their affection.

[Lauren] had the idea of using objective, third-party observers checking in on her dating activities and giving advice as to what she should do next. Yes, she’s streaming her dates over the Internet and asking for advice from Mechanical Turk workers.

The idea behind this project isn’t that [Lauren] isn’t looking for advice from her own Cyrano, but rather to open up new, previously unexpected possibilities. Turk workers will watch the stream while [Lauren] presents them with options telling her to smile more, laugh, change the subject, or ask a question. [Lauren] receives these results as a text message, where she’ll comply with the Internet’s wishes and hope her date doesn’t go horribly awry.

It’s an interesting project to say the least, but we’ve got to wonder about the quality of the advice given from her online advisers. Turk workers do take their jobs more seriously than random people on the Internet, so barring an invasion from /b/, [Lauren]’s night might just go alright.

A camera that describes a picture for you

[Matt]’s Descriptive Camera looks just like any other point and shoot camera, albeit a little more boxy and homemade-looking. It even works just like the Polaroids of yesteryear – snap a picture and in a few minutes you’ve got a reproduction in your hands. Unlike any other camera before, [Matt]’s camera doesn’t give you an image. [Matt]’s camera gives you a description of the picture you took, printed out on  easily-scrapbooked thermal receipt paper. Yes, mankind is now that meta.

To build the hardware of his camera, [Matt] took a BeagleBone single-board Linux computer and attached a webcam and a thermal receipt printer. The real magic is in the artificial artificial intelligence that is Mechanical Turk. [Matt]’s camera sends his picture up to the Internet where some random stranger describes his picture. This description is sent back and printed on the receipt paper.

Even though [Matt] is spending $1.25 to have a single picture described on Mechanical Turk, there’s probably not another camera as retro-meta-fabulous-fantastic out there.