A small round NRF51822 board glued to the underside of a mailbox lid, with a small vibration sensor attached

Check Your Mailbox Using The AirTag Infrastructure

When a company creates an infrastructure of devices, we sometimes subvert this infrastructure and use it to solve tricky problems. For example, here’s a question that many a hacker has pondered – how do you detect when someone puts mail into your mailbox? Depending on the availability of power and wireless/wired connectivity options, this problem can range from “very easy” to “impractical to solve”. [dakhnod] just made this problem trivial for the vast majority of hackers, with the FakeTag project – piggybacking off the Apple’s AirTag infrastructure.

This project uses a cheap generic CR2032-powered NRF51822 board, sending the mailbox status over the FindMy system Apple has built for the AirTag devices. For the incoming mail detection, he uses a simple vibration sensor, glued to the flap lid – we imagine that, for flap-less mailboxes, an optical sensor or a different kind of mechanical sensor could be used instead. Every time someone with a FindMy-friendly iPhone passes by [dakhnod]’s mailbox, he gets an update on its status, with a counter of times the sensor has been triggered. [dakhnod] estimates that the device could run for up to a year on a single battery.

Continue reading “Check Your Mailbox Using The AirTag Infrastructure”

You Break It, We Fix It

Apple’s AirTags have caused a stir, but for all the wrong reasons. First, they turn all iPhones into Bluetooth LE beacon repeaters, without the owner’s permission. The phones listen for the AirTags, encrypt their location, and send the data on to the iCloud, where the tag’s owner can decrypt the location and track it down. Bad people have figured out that this lets them track their targets without their knowledge, turning all iPhone users into potential accomplices to stalkings, or worse.

Naturally, Apple has tried to respond by implementing some privacy-protecting features. But they’re imperfect to the point of being almost useless. For instance, AirTags now beep once they’ve been out of range of their owner’s phone for a while, which would surely alert the target that they’re being tracked, right? Well, unless the evil-doer took the speaker out, or bought one with the speaker already removed — and there’s a surprising market for these online.

If you want to know that you’re being traced, Apple “innovated with the first-ever proactive system to alert you of unwanted tracking”, which almost helped patch up the problem they created, but it only runs on Apple phones. It’s not clear what they meant by “first-ever” because hackers and researchers from the SeeMoo group at the Technical University of Darmstadt beat them to it by at least four months with the open-source AirGuard project that runs on the other 75% of phones out there.

Along the way, the SeeMoo group also reverse engineered the AirTag system, allowing anything that can send BLE beacons to play along. This opened the door for [Fabian Bräunlein]’s ID-hopping “Find You” attack that breaks all of the tracker-detectors by using an ESP32 instead of an AirTag. His basic point is that most of the privacy guarantees that Apple is trying to make on the “Find My” system rely on criminals using unmodified AirTags, and that’s not very likely.

To be fair, Apple can’t win here. They want to build a tracking network where only the good people do the tracking. But the device can’t tell if you’re looking for your misplaced keys or stalking a swimsuit model. It can’t tell if you’re silencing it because you don’t want it beeping around your dog’s neck while you’re away at work, or because you’ve planted it on a luxury car that you’d like to lift when its owners are away. There’s no technological solution for that fundamental problem.

But hackers are patching up the holes they can, and making the other holes visible, so that we can at least have a reasonable discussion about the tech’s tradeoffs. Apple seems content to have naively opened up a Pandora’s box of privacy violation. Somehow it’s up to us to figure out a way to close it.

What Is Ultra Wideband?

If you’ve been following the world of mobile phone technology of late, you may be aware that Apple’s latest IPhones and AirTag locator tags bring something new to that platform. Ultra wideband radios are the new hotness when it comes to cellphones, so just what are they and what’s in it for those of us who experiment with these things?

An Apple AirTag being paired with an iPhone. Swisshashtag, CC BY-SA 4.0.
An Apple AirTag being paired with an iPhone. Swisshashtag, CC BY-SA 4.0.

Ultra wideband in this context refers to radio signals with a very high bandwidth of over 500 MHz, and a very low overall power density spread over that  spectrum. Transmissions are encoded not by modulation of discrete-frequency carriers as they would be in a conventional radio system, but by the emission of wideband pulses of RF energy across that bandwidth.  It can exist across the same unlicensed spectrum as narrower bandwidth channelised services, and that huge bandwidth gives it an extremely high short-range data transfer bandwidth capability. The chipsets used by consumer devices use a range of UWB channels between about 3.5 and 6.5 GHz, which in radio terms is an immense quantity of spectrum. Continue reading “What Is Ultra Wideband?”

Apple AirTag Spills Its Secrets

The Apple AirTag is a $29 Bluetooth beacon that sticks onto your stuff and helps you locate it when lost. It’s more than just a beeper though, the idea is that it can be silently spotted by any iDevice — almost like a crowd-sourced mesh network — and its owner alerted of its position wherever they are in the world.

There are so many questions about its privacy implications despite Apple’s reassurances, so naturally it has been of great interest to those who research such things. First among those working on it to gain control of its nRF52832 microcontroller is [Stacksmashing], who used a glitching technique whereby the chip’s internal power supply is interrupted with precise timing, to bypass the internally enabled protection of its debug port. The firmware has been dumped, and of course a tag has been repurposed for the far more worthwhile application of Rickrolling Bluetooth snoopers.

The idea of a global network of every iDevice helping reunite owners with their lost possessions is on the face of it a very interesting one, and Apple are at great pains on the AirTag product page to reassure customers about the system’s security. On one hand this work opens up the AirTag as a slightly expensive way to get an nRF microcontroller for other applications, but the real value will come as the firmware is analysed to see how at the tag itself works.

[Stacksmashing] has appeared on these pages many times before, often in the context of Nintendo hardware. Just one piece of work is the guide to opening up a Nintendo Game and Watch.