Why Aren’t We Arguing More about Mr Robot?

Editor’s note: Thar be spoilers below.

Showing any sort of ‘hacking’ on either the big screen or the small often ends in complete, abject failure. You only need to look at Hackers with its rollerblading PowerBooks, Independance Day where the aliens are also inexplicably using PowerBooks, or even the likes of Lawnmower Man with a VR sex scene we keep waiting for Oculus to introduce. By design, Mr Robot, a series that ended its first season on USA a month ago, bucks this trend. It does depressed, hoodie-wearing, opioid-dependant hackers right, while still managing to incorporate some interesting tidbits from the world of people who call themselves hackers.

Desktop Environments

In episode 0 of Mr Robot, we’re introduced to our hiro protagonist [Elliot], played by [Rami Malek], a tech at the security firm AllSafe. We are also introduced to the show’s Macbeth, [Tyrell Wellick], played by Martin Wallström]. When these characters are introduced to each other, [Tyrell] notices [Elliot] is using the Gnome desktop on his work computer while [Tyrell] says he’s, “actually on KDE myself. I know [Gnome] is supposed to be better, but you know what they say, old habits, they die hard.”

[Elliot], running Kali with Gnome
[Elliot], running Kali with Gnome
While this short exchange would appear to most as two techies talking shop, this is a scene with a surprisingly deep interpretation. Back in the 90s, when I didn’t care if kids stayed off my lawn or not, there was a great desktop environment war in the land of Linux. KDE was not free, it was claimed by the knights of GNU, and this resulted in the creation of the Gnome.

Subtle, yes, but in one short interaction between [Elliot] and [Tyrell], we see exactly where each is coming from. [Elliot] stands for freedom of software and of mind, [Tyrell] is simply toeing the company line. It’s been fifteen years since message boards have blown up over the Free Software Foundation’s concerns over KDE, but the sentiment is there.


There’s far more to a hacker ethos than having preferred Linux desktop environments. Hacking is everywhere, and this also includes biohacking, In the case of one Mr Robot character, this means genetic engineering.

In one episode of Mr Robot, the character Romero temporarily gives up his power in front of a keyboard and turns his mind to genetics. He “…figured out how to insert THC’s genetic information code into yeast cells.” Purely from a legal standpoint, this is an interesting situation; weed is illegal, yeast is not, and the possibilities for production are enormous. Yeast only requires simple sugars to divide and grow in a test tube, marijuana actually requires a lot of resources and an experienced staff to produce a good crop.

Life imitates art, but sometimes the reverse is true. Just a few weeks after this episode aired, researchers at  Hyasynth Bio announced they had genetically modified yeast cells to produce THC and cannabidiol.

The promise of simply genetically modifying yeast to produce THC is intriguing; a successful yeast-based grow room could outproduce any plant-based operation, with the only input being sugar. Alas, the reality of the situation isn’t quite that simple. Researchers at Hyasynth Bio have only engineered yeast to turn certain chemical precursors into THC. Making THC from yeast isn’t yet as simple as home brewing an IPA, but it’s getting close, and a great example of how Mr Robot is tapping into hacking, both new and old.

Why Aren’t We Arguing More About This?

The more we ruminate on this show, the more there is to enjoy about it. It’s the subtle background that’s the most fun; the ceiling of the chapel as it were. We’re thinking of turning out a series of posts that works through all the little delights that you might have missed. For those who watched and love the series, what do you think? Perhaps there are other shows worthy of this hacker drill-down, but we haven’t found them yet.

Millions of Satellite Receivers are Low-Hanging Fruit for Botnets

Satellite television is prevalent in Europe and Northern Africa. This is delivered through a Set Top Box (STB) which uses a card reader to decode the scrambled satellite signals. You need to buy a card if you want to watch. But you know how people like to get something for nothing. This is being exploited by hackers and the result is millions of these Set Top Boxes just waiting to form into botnets.

This was the topic of [Sofiane Talmat’s] talk at DEF CON 23. He also gave this talk earlier in the week at BlackHat and has published his slides (PDF).

stb-hardwareThe Hardware in Satellite receivers is running Linux. They use a card reader to pull in a Code Word (CW) which decodes the signal coming in through the satellite radio.

An entire black market has grown up around these Code Words. Instead of purchasing a valid card, people are installing plugins from the Internet which cause the system to phone into a server which will supply valid Code Words. This is known as “card sharing”.

On the user side of things this just works; the user watches TV for free. It might cause more crashes than normal, but the stock software is buggy anyway so this isn’t a major regression. The problem is that now these people have exposed a network-connected Linux box to the Internet and installed non-verified code from unreputable sources to run on the thing.

[Sofiane] demonstrated how little you need to know about this system to create a botnet:

  • Build a plugin in C/C++
  • Host a card-sharing server
  • Botnet victims come to you (profit)

It is literally that easy. The toolchain to compile the STLinux binaries (gcc) is available in the Linux repos. The STB will look for a “bin” directory on a USB thumb drive at boot time, the binary in that folder will be automatically installed. Since the user is getting free TV they voluntarily install this malware.

Click through for more on the STB Hacks.

Continue reading “Millions of Satellite Receivers are Low-Hanging Fruit for Botnets”

A Simple Circuit For Testing Infrared Remote Controls

Every now and then a remote control acts up. Maybe you are trying to change the channel on your television and it’s just not working. A quick way to determine if the remote control is still working is by using a cell phone camera to try to see if the IR LED is still lighting up. That can work sometimes but not always. [Rui] had this problem and he decided to build his own circuit to make it easier to tell if a remote control was having problems.

The circuit uses a Vishay V34836 infrared receiver to pick up the invisible signals that are sent from a remote control. A Microchip 12F683 processes the data and has two main output modes. If the remote control is receiving data continuously, then a green LED lights up to indicate that the remote is functioning properly. If some data is received but not in a continuous stream, then a yellow LED lights up instead. This indicates that the batteries on the remote need to be replaced.

The circuit also includes a red LED as a power indicator as well as RS232 output of the actual received data. The PCB was cut using a milling machine. It’s glued to the top of a dual AAA battery holder, which provides plenty of current to run the circuit.

Retrotechtacular: The Early Days of CGI

We all know what Computer-Generated Imagery (CGI) is nowadays. It’s almost impossible to get away from it in any television show or movie. It’s gotten so good, that sometimes it can be difficult to tell the difference between the real world and the computer generated world when they are mixed together on-screen. Of course, it wasn’t always like this. This 1982 clip from BBC’s Tomorrow’s World shows what the wonders of CGI were capable of in a simpler time.

In the earliest days of CGI, digital computers weren’t even really a thing. [John Whitney] was an American animator and is widely considered to be the father of computer animation. In the 1940’s, he and his brother [James] started to experiment with what they called “abstract animation”. They pieced together old analog computers and servos to make their own devices that were capable of controlling the motion of lights and lit objects. While this process may be a far cry from the CGI of today, it is still animation performed by a computer. One of [Whitney’s] best known works is the opening title sequence to [Alfred Hitchcock’s] 1958 film, Vertigo.

Later, in 1973, Westworld become the very first feature film to feature CGI. The film was a science fiction western-thriller about amusement park robots that become evil. The studio wanted footage of the robot’s “computer vision” but they would need an expert to get the job done right. They ultimately hired [John Whitney’s] son, [John Whitney Jr] to lead the project. The process first required color separating each frame of the 70mm film because [John Jr] did not have a color scanner. He then used a computer to digitally modify each image to create what we would now recognize as a “pixelated” effect. The computer processing took approximately eight hours for every ten seconds of footage. Continue reading “Retrotechtacular: The Early Days of CGI”

EVA: What’s on Telly for the Visually Impaired

[chewabledrapery] has certainly used his Raspberry Pi for good. His girlfriend’s grandfather is growing more visually impaired as time goes on. He likes to watch telly, but has trouble reading the on-screen information about the channel and programming. To that end, [chewabledrapery] has built an electronic voice assistant called EVA, who fetches the telly schedule from a web service and reads it aloud in her lovely voice that comes courtesy of Google Translate’s TTS function.

Under EVA’s hood is a Raspberry Pi. A USB hub powers the Pi and holds a small USB soundcard, a Wi-Fi dongle, and a USB daughterboard that the controller plugs into. The daughterboard is from a USB keyboard, which makes another appearance in the awesome controller. It’s made of a joystick and two arcade buttons that use the USB keyboard’s controller to interact with Python scripts.

[chewabledrapery]’s scripts make formatted requests to a web service called atlas, which returns JSON objects with the TV schedule and content descriptions. EVA then turns to Google Translate, speaking the formatted text through a small amplifier and salvaged PC speaker. In order to minimize the number of web calls, some of EVA’s frequent musings are stored locally. A full tour of EVA is after the break.

We love to see hacks that help people. Remember this RFID audio book reader?

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RGB Video Input Hack is a Master Hack for CRT Televisions

What’s shown on the screen above is about half-way through the process of hacking RGB video into a CRT television that’s not supposed to have it. The lettering is acting a bit like a layer mask, showing bits of the Super Mario Bros. start screen which is being injected from an original Famicom. [Michael J. Moffitt] figured out that he could patch his signals into the multiplexer which is responsible for overlaying the TV’s menu system. Obviously you can’t get your Mario on with this view, but the next step was as simple as finding the blanking pin and tying it 5V. Brilliant.

This particular hack is worthy of recognition. But read through [Michael’s] write up and it’s obvious that he knows the driver circuitry beyond the realm of normal curiosity. If you ever get stuck while trying to do something custom, we’d recommend pinging him with your questions (sorry [Michael] but with great knowledge comes great responsibility).


Retrotechtacular: Designing and Building RCA Televisions

waveformWhile it’s almost cliché to say they don’t make things like they used to, this week’s Retrotechtacular offers fairly conclusive proof that, at the very least, they used to put more time and effort into manufacturing consumer electronics. Gather your homemade wisecrackin’ robots and settle in front of this 1959 film entitled “The Reasons Why”, a rah-rah film created for new employees of the RCA Victor television division.

It may open with a jingle, but things quickly turn serious. Quality is no laughing matter for the men and women devoted to bringing you the best television set for your money. This type of unmatched excellence begins with tireless R&D into improving sound and picture quality. Every transformer is tested at five times the rated voltage, and every capacitor at two times the rating. Every switch undergoes a series of mechanical tests, including a pressured steam bath to ensure they will hold up even if you drag your set out to the porch some unbearably hot deep South August night.

hot august nights

Cabinet design is just as important—what’s the use in housing a chassis and kinescope that’ll last for 60 years in some cheap box? Woods from all over the world are carefully considered for their beauty and durability. A television set is, after all, the centerpiece of the American family room furniture group. These carefully selected woods are baked in a series of ovens to prove they’ll stand up to hours of continuous use.

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