The New-Phone Blues: A Reminder That Hackers Shouldn’t Settle

For all the convenience and indispensability of having access to the sum total of human knowledge in the palm of your hand, the actual process of acquiring and configuring a smartphone can be an incredibly frustrating experience. Standing in those endless queues at the cell phone store, jumping through the administrative hoops, and staring in sticker shock at device that’s going to end its life dunked in a toilet, contribute to the frustration.

But for my money, the real trouble starts once you get past all that stuff and start trying to set up the new phone just right. Sure, most phone manufacturers make it fairly easy to clone your old phone onto the new one, but there are always hiccups. And for something that gets as tightly integrated into the workflows of your daily life as cell phones do, that can be a real bummer. Especially when you find out that your shiny new phone can’t do something you absolutely depend on.

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An Off-Grid Makeshift Cell Network

When traveling into the wilderness with a group of people, it’s good to have a method of communications set up both for safety and practicality. In the past people often relied on radios like FRS, CB, or ham bands if they had licenses, but nowadays almost everyone has a built-in communications device in their pocket that’s ready to use. Rather than have all of his friends grab a CB to put in their vehicle for their adventures together, [Keegan] built an off-grid network which allows any Android phone to communicate with text even if a cell network isn’t available.

The communications system is built on the LoRa communications standard for increased range over other methods like WiFi using a SX1278 chip and an ESP8266. The hardware claims a 10 km radius using this method which is more than enough for [Keegan]’s needs. Actually connecting to the network is only half of the solution though; the devices will still need a method of communication. For that, a custom Android app was created which allows up to 8 devices to connect to the network and exchange text messages with each other similar to a group text message.

For off-grid adventures a solution like this is an elegant solution to a communications problem. It uses mostly existing hardware since everyone carries their own phones already, plus the LoRa standard means that even the ESP8266 base station and transmitter are using only a tiny bit of what is likely battery power. If you’re new to this wireless communications method, we recently featured a LoRa tutorial as well.

Smart Ruler Has Many Features

For those of us who remember old ball mice, they were a lot like modern optical mice except that they needed to be cleaned constantly. Having optical mice as a standard way of interacting with a computer is a major improvement over previous eras in computing. With extinction of the ball mouse, there are an uncountable number of cheap optical mice around now which are easy pickings for modern hacking, and this latest project from [Vipul] shows off some of the ways that optical mice can be repurposed by building a digital ruler.

The build seems straightforward on the surface. As the ruler is passed over a surface the device keeps track of exactly how far it has moved, making it an effective and very accurate ruler. To built it, the optical component of a mouse was scavenged and mated directly to a Raspberry Pi Zero W over USB. Originally he intended to use an ESP32 but could not get the USB interface to work. [Vipul] was then able to write some software which can read the information from the mouse’s PCB directly and translate it into human-readable form where it is displayed on a small screen. The entire device is housed in a custom 3D-printed enclosure to wrap everything up, but the build doesn’t stop there though. [Vipul] also leveraged the Bluetooth functionality of the Pi and wrote a smartphone app which can be used to control the ruler as well.

While the device does have some limitations in that it has to make contact with the object being measured across its entire length, there are some situations where we can imagine something like this being extremely useful especially when measuring things that aren’t a straight line. [Vipul] has also made all of the code for this project publicly available for those of us who might have other uses in mind for something like this. We’ve seen optical mice repurposed for all kinds of things in the past, too, including measuring travel distances in autonomous vehicles.

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JavaScript App Uses Advanced Math To Make PCBs Easier To Etch

We all remember the litany from various math classes we’ve taken, where frustration at a failure to understand a difficult concept bubbles over into the classic, “When am I ever going to need to know this in real life?” But as we all know, even the most esoteric mathematical concepts have applications in the real world, and failure to master them can come back to haunt you.

Take Voronoi diagrams, for example. While we don’t recall being exposed to these in any math class, it turns out that they can be quite useful in a seemingly unrelated area: converting PCB designs into easy-to-etch tessellated patterns. Voronoi diagrams are in effect a plane divided into different regions, or “cells”, each centered on a “seed” object. Each cell is the set of points that are closer to a particular seed than they are to any other seed. For PCBs the seeds can be represented by the traces; dividing the plane up into cells around those traces results in a tessellated pattern that’s easily etched.

To make this useful to PCB creators, [Craig Iannello] came up with a JavaScript application that takes an image of a PCB, tessellates the traces, and spits out G-code suitable for a laser engraver. A blank PCB covered with a layer of spray paint, the tessellated pattern is engraved into the paint, and the board is etched and drilled in the usual fashion. [Craig]’s program makes allowances for adding specific features to the board, like odd-shaped pads or traces that need specific routing.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen Voronoi diagrams employed for PCB design, but the method looks so easy that we’d love to give it a try. It even looks as though it might work for CNC milling of boards too.

Possible Spyware On Samsung Phones

[Editor’s note: There’s an ongoing back-and-forth about this “spyware” right now. We haven’t personally looked into it on any phones, and decoded Wireshark caps of what the cleaner software sends home seem to be lacking — it could be innocuous. We’re leaving our original text as-run below, but you might want to take this with a grain of salt until further evidence comes out. Or keep us all up to date in the comments. But be wary of jumping to quick conclusions.]

Samsung may have the highest-end options for hardware if you want an Android smartphone, but that hasn’t stopped them from making some questionable decisions on the software they sometimes load on it. Often these phones come with “default” apps that can’t be removed through ordinary means, or can’t even be disabled, and the latest discovery related to pre-loaded software on Samsung phones seems to be of a pretty major security vulnerability.

This software in question is a “storage cleaner” in the “Device Care” section of the phone, which is supposed to handle file optimization and deletion. This particular application is made by a Chinese company called Qihoo 360 and can’t be removed from the phone without using ADB or having root. The company is known for exceptionally bad practices concerning virus scanning, and the software has been accused of sending all information about files on the phone to servers in China, which could then turn all of the data it has over to the Chinese government. This was all discovered through the use of packet capture and osint, which are discussed in the post.

These revelations came about recently on Reddit from [kchaxcer] who made the original claims. It seems to be fairly legitimate at this point as well, and another user named [GeorgePB] was able to provide a temporary solution/workaround in the comments on the original post. It’s an interesting problem that probably shouldn’t exist on any phone, let alone a flagship phone competing with various iPhones, but it does highlight some security concerns we should all have with our daily use devices when we can’t control the software on the hardware that we supposedly own. There are some alternatives though if you are interested in open-source phones.

Thanks to [kickaxe] for the tip!

Photo from Pang Kakit [CC BY-SA 3.0 DE (]

Give Yourself A Sixth Sense With An Arduino

If you carry a smartphone around in your pocket, you have a GPS navigation system, a compass, an altimeter, and a very powerful computer at your fingertips. It’s the greatest navigational device ever created. To use this sextant of the modern era you’ve got to look down at a screen. You need to carry a phone around with you. It’s just not natural.

For this entry into the Hackaday Prize, [Vojtech Pavlovsky] has an innovative solution to direction finding that will give you a sixth sense. It’s a headband that turns your temples into the input for a clever way to find yourself around the city or a forest, and it does it with just an Arduino and a few other bits.

The idea behind the Ariadne Headband is to create a haptic navigation system for blind people, runners, bikers, or really anybody. It does this by mounting four vibration motors on a headband, connecting those motors to an Arduino, sniffing data from a digital compass, and getting data over Bluetooth from an Android app.

All of these parts come together to form a new sense — a sense of direction. By simply telling the app to make sure you’re always oriented North, or to guide you along the grid of city streets, this headband becomes an inconspicuous and extraordinarily useful way to get around.

Easy Time-lapse Video Via Phone And Command Line

A good time-lapse video can be useful visual documentation, and since [Tommy]’s phone is the best camera he owns he created two simple shell scripts to grab time-lapse images and assemble them into a video. [Tommy]’s work is just the glue between two other things: an app that turns the phone into an IP camera with a web server on the local network, and the ability to grab a still image from that server on demand.

The app he uses for his iPhone normally serves video but has an undocumented feature that allows single frames to be downloaded by adding ‘/photo’ to the end of the URL, but the ability to get a still image is a common feature on IP camera apps for smartphones. His capture script (GitHub repository here) should therefore need only minor changes to work with just about any IP camera app.

Perching a phone over a workspace and using it to create a time-lapse with a couple of shell scripts is a great example of combining simple tools to get better functionality. It could be a good way to get additional use out of an older smartphone, too. Heck, even older dumbphones can still get some use out of them; Shmoocon 2017 brought us details on rolling your own 1G network.