Here’s How The Precursor Protects Your Privacy

At some point, you will find yourself asking – is my device actually running the code I expect it to? [bunnie] aka [Andrew Huang] is passionate about making devices you can fundamentally, deeply trust, and his latest passion project is the Precursor communicator.

At the heart of it is an FPGA, and Precursor’s CPU is created out of the gates of that FPGA. This and a myriad of other design decisions make the Precursor fundamentally hard to backdoor, and you don’t have to take [bunnie]’s word for it — he’s made an entire video going through the architecture, boot protections and guarantees of the Precursor, teaching us what goes into a secure device that’s also practical to use.

Screenshot from the video, showing a diagram of how precursor's software and hardware components relate to each other If you can’t understand how your device works, your trust in it might be misplaced. In the hour long video, [bunnie] explains the entire stack, from the lower levels of hardware to root keys used to sign and verify the integrity of your OS, along the way demonstrating how you can verify that things haven’t gone wrong.

He makes sure to point out aspects you’d want to be cautious of, from physical security limitations to toolchain nuances. If you’re not up for a video, you can always check out the Precursor wiki, which has a treasure trove of information on the device’s security model.

As you might’ve already learned, it’s not enough for hardware to be open-source in order to be trustworthy. While open-source silicon designs are undoubtedly the future, their security guarantees only go so far.

Whether it’s esoteric hard drive firmware backdoors, weekend projects turning your WiFi card into a keylogger, or rootkits you can get on store-bought Lenovo laptops, hell, even our latest This Week In Security installment has two fun malware examples – there’s never a shortage of parties interested in collecting as much data as possible.

Books You Should Read: The Hardware Hacker’s Handbook

Here on Hackaday, we routinely cover wonderful informative writeups on different areas of hardware hacking, and we even have our own university with courses that delve into topics one by one. I’ve had my own fair share of materials I’ve learned theory and practical aspects from over the years I’ve been hacking – as it stands, for over thirteen years. When such materials weren’t available on any particular topic, I’d go through hundreds of forum pages trawling for details on a specific topic, or spend hours fighting with an intricacy that everyone else considered obvious.

Today, I’d like to highlight one of the most complete introductions to hardware hacking I’ve seen so far – from overall principles to technical details, spanning all levels of complexity, uniting theory and practice. This is The Hardware Hacking Handbook, by Jasper van Woudenberg and Colin O’Flynn. Across four hundred pages, you will find as complete of an introduction to subverting hardware as there is. None of the nuances are considered to be self-evident; instead, this book works to fill any gaps you might have, finding words to explain every relevant concept on levels from high to low.

Apart from the overall hardware hacking principles and examples, this book focuses on the areas of fault injection and power analysis – underappreciated areas of hardware security that you’d stand to learn, given that these two practices give you superpowers when it comes to taking control of hardware. It makes sense, since these areas are the focus of [Colin]’s and [Jasper]’s research, and they’re able to provide you something you wouldn’t learn elsewhere. You’d do well with a ChipWhisperer in hand if you wanted to repeat some of the things this book shows, but it’s not a requirement. For a start, the book’s theory of hardware hacking is something you would benefit from either way. Continue reading “Books You Should Read: The Hardware Hacker’s Handbook”

The modem in question plugged into a black powerbank.

Hackable $20 Modem Combines LTE And Pi Zero W2 Power

[extrowerk] tells us about a new hacker-friendly device – a $20 LTE modem stick with a quadcore CPU and WiFi, capable of running fully-featured Linux distributions. This discovery hinges on a mountain of work by a Chinese hacker [HandsomeYingYan], who’s figured out this stick runs Android, hacked its bootloader, tweaked a Linux kernel for it and created a Debian distribution for the stick – calling this the OpenStick project. [extrowerk]’s writeup translates the [HandsomeYingYan]’s tutorial for us and makes a few more useful notes. With this writeup in hand, we have unlocked a whole new SBC to use in our projects – at a surprisingly low price!

At times when even the simplest Pi Zero is unobtainium (yet again!), this is a wonderful find. For a bit over the price of a Zero 2W, you get a computer with a similar CPU (4-core 1GHz A53-based Qualcomm MSM8916), same amount of RAM, 4GB storage, WiFi – and an LTE modem. You can stick this one into a powerbank or a wallwart and run it at a remote location, make it into a home automation hub, or perhaps, process some CPU-intensive tasks in a small footprint. You can even get them with a microSD slot for extra storage – or perhaps, even extra GPIOs? You’re not getting a soldering-friendly GPIO header, but it has a few LEDs and, apparently, a UART header, so it’s not all bad. As [extrowerk] points out, this is basically a mobile phone in a stick form factor, but without the display and the battery.

The modem with its cover taken off, showing the chips on its board.Now, there’s caveats. [extrowerk] points out that you should buy the modem with the appropriate LTE bands for your country – and that’s not the only thing to watch out for. A friend of ours recently obtained a visually identical modem; when we got news of this hack, she disassembled it for us – finding out that it was equipped with a far more limited CPU, the MDM9600. That is an LTE modem chip, and its functions are limited to performing USB 4G stick duty with some basic WiFi features. Judging by a popular mobile device reverse-engineering forum’s investigations (Russian, translated), looks like the earlier versions of this modem came with the way more limited MDM9600 SoC, not able to run Linux like the stick we’re interested in does. If you like this modem and understandably want to procure a few, see if you can make sure you’ll get MSM8916 and not the MDM9600.

Days of using WiFi routers to power our robots are long gone since the advent of Raspberry Pi, but we still remember them fondly, and we’re glad to see a router stick with the Pi Zero 2W oomph. We’ve been hacking at such sticks for over half a decade now, most of them OpenWRT-based, some as small as an SD card reader. Now, when SBCs are hard to procure, this could be a perfect fit for one of your next projects.

Update: in the comments below, people have found a few links where you should be able to get one of these modems with the right CPU. Also, [Joe] has started investigating the onboard components!

Tablet ina 3D printed stand, showing timetables on its screen

Revive Your Old E-Ink Tablet For Timetable Helper Duty

In our drawers, there’s gonna be quite a few old devices that we’ve forgotten about, and perhaps we ought to make them work for us instead. [Jonatron] found a Nook Simple Touch in his drawer – with its E-ink screen, wireless connectivity and a workable Android version, this e-reader from 2011 has the guts for always-on display duty. Sadly, the soft touch covering on the back disintegrated into a sticky mess, as soft touch does, the LiIon battery has gone flat, and the software support’s lackluster. Both of these are likely to happen for a lot of tablets, which is why we’re happy [Jonatron] has shared his story about this e-reader’s revival.

The tablet in question with back cover removed, battery wires connected to a USB cable for powerThe soft touch layer on the back didn’t go away with help of alcohol, but by sheer luck, an acetone bottle was nearby, and an acetone scrub helped get rid of the unpleasant stickiness. The tablet’s charging circuitry turned out to be unsophisticated – the tablet wouldn’t boot from MicroUSB input, and [Jonathan] wired up 5 volts from a USB cable straight into the battery input. Mind you, this might not be advised, as Lithium-Ion battery range is from 3 volts to 4.2 volts and a regulator would be called for, but [Jonatron] says it’s been working just fine.

Usually, you could just put a webserver on your local network and serve a page with useful information, adding code to refresh the page periodically – but the Nook’s browser didn’t support automatic refreshes. Not to be stopped, [Jonatron] wrote an app for the Nook’s Android install instead; rooting was required but went seamlessly. The Android install is old, and Android Studio for it is no longer downloadable, so he used an older development toolkit somehow still available online. There’s still a small Python-written webserver running on a spare Pi, conditioning the data for the app to fetch. Following best hacker traditions, both the app and the server are open-sourced! With help of a 3D printed stand, this tablet now displays train departure schedules – perfect application for an old e-reader like this.

Got a Nook Simple Touch in a drawer? Now you know you can easily convert it into a hackable E-ink display! We’ve seen numerous tablet restorations before, replacing charger ICs and eMMC drives, turning them into videophones to chat with our relatives and smart home controllers, and there’s even repair databases to help you in your revival efforts. We’ve been getting quite a few projects like these in our last Hackaday Prize installment, Hack It Back, and we hope to see more such rebuilds for our Wildcard round!

An illuminated MCH2022 sign composed of large LED letters

Mutually Crafted Happiness: How MCH2022 Happened

Just a few days ago, MCH2022, a six day long hacker camp in Netherlands, has concluded – bringing about three thousand hackers together to hang out. It was my first trip to a large hacker camp like this, as I’ve only been to smaller ones, and this story is coming from someone who’s only now encountering the complexity and intricacy of one. This is the story of how it’s run on the inside.

MCH2022 is the successor of a hacker camp series in the Netherlands – you might’ve heard of the the previous one, SHA, organized in 2017. The “MCH” part officially stands for May Contain Hackers – and those, it absolutely did contain. An event for hackers of all kinds to rest, meet each other, and hang out – long overdue, and in fact, delayed for a year due to the everpresent pandemic. This wasn’t a conference-like event where you’d expect a schedule, catering and entertainment – a lot of what made MCH cool was each hacker’s unique input.

Just like many other camps similar to this, it was a volunteer-organized event – there’s no company standing behind it, save for a few sponsors with no influence on decisionmaking; it’s an event by hackers, for hackers. The Netherlands has a healthy culture of hackerspaces, with plenty of cooperation between them, and forming a self-organized network of volunteers, that cooperation works magic. Continue reading “Mutually Crafted Happiness: How MCH2022 Happened”

The Orbtrace debugger hardware connected to a development board t hrough a 20-pin ribbon cable. The development board has a green LED shining.

ORBTrace Effort: Open Tool For Professional Debugging

There are some fairly powerful debugging facilities available on today’s microcontrollers — if your code crashes mysteriously, chances are, there’s a debugging interface that could let you track down the exact crash circumstances in no time. Sadly, debugging tools for these powerful interfaces tend to be prohibitively expensive and highly proprietary, thus, not friendly for hobbyists. Now, there’s a community-driven high-capability debugging platform called ORBTrace, brought to us by [mubes] and [zyp].

With parallel trace, you get a constant stream of consciousness, every exact instruction executed by your CPU. [mubes] and [zyp] set out to tap into the power of parallel trace debugging for Cortex-M processors. and the ORBTrace project was born. Relying on the Orbuculum project’s software capabilities, this FPGA-based debugger platform can do parallel trace and the more popular high-speed SWO trace – and way more. ORBTrace has the potential to grow into a powerful debug helper tool, with enough capabilities for anyone to benefit. And of course, it’s fully open-source.

The ORBTrace board, with a FPGA in the center of it, a USB-C connector on the left, and two IDC debug connectors on the right (one ten-pin and one twenty-pin)The ORBTrace platform has plenty of untapped potential. There’s the battle-tested JTAG and SWD that you can already use with all the open tools you could expect. However, there’s also plenty of available resources on the FPGA, including even a currently unutilized RISC-V softcore. If you wanted to add support for any other family of devices to this debugger, sky’s the limit! And, of course, there’s cool software to go with it – for example, orbmortem, which keeps a ring buffer of instructions in memory and shows you the last code executed before your CPU stops, or orbstat, a tool for profiling your embedded code.

If you’re looking to purchase effortless feature parity with Segger or Lauterbach devices, the ORBTrace doesn’t promise that. Instead, it’s an open debugging toolkit project, with hardware available for purchase, and software just waiting for you take control of it. This project’s community hangs out in the 1BitSquared discord’s #orbuculum channel, and gateware’s advancing at a rapid pace – welcoming you to join in on the fun.

ORBTrace is a powerful tool for when your goals become large and your problems become complex. And, being a community-driven experimental effort, we’ll undoubtedly see great things come out of it – like the Mooltipass project, originally developed by Hackaday community members, and still going strong.

The charging station on the table, with twelve powerbanks plugged into it, charging. A small meter on the front panel shows 4.73 volts and 4.38 amps.

A Simple Charging Station For Twelve Powerbanks

[jasonwinfieldnz] uses twelve small powerbanks day to day – powering LED strips around his trampoline, presumably, to avoid the mess of wires and make the assembly easily portable. However, if you have twelve powerbanks, you’ll find yourself hogging all the household’s microUSB cables every so often, as they eventually discharge. This was not good enough for our hacker, and he decided to build a charging station to refill them all at once.

If you need 5 volts and many amps, an ATX PSU isn’t your worst bet. From there, he only had to add twelve microUSB connectors to – and condensed the entire contraption into a beautiful charging station. For the microUSB part, he hacked some microUSB cable ends off and embedded them into the case. An embedded voltage and current module is of big help – letting you see at a glance when charging has really finished. Using copper tape as bus bars and banana plugs for charging input, this project is easy to build and solves the problem well.

The 3D printing files and cutting templates are right there on the project page, so if any of us hackers has a problem that twelve powerbanks could help with, [Jason]’s project is quite repeatable. If your devices are more diverse, you could use a pegboard to build a stylish charging station for them! If, on the other hand, you have a single device you need to plug multiple cords into, moldable plastic is there to help.