Teardown: BlackBerry Smart Card Reader

Years before Steve Jobs showed off the first iPhone, the BlackBerry was already the must-have accessory for mobile professionals. Back then, nobody was worried about watching movies or playing the latest games on their mobile devices, they just wanted a secure and fast way to send and receive email on the go. For that, the BlackBerry was king.

Fast forward to today, and the company is just a shell of what it once was. They don’t even bother making their own hardware anymore. Over the last several years they’ve opted to partner with a series of increasingly obscure manufacturers to produce a handful of lackluster Android phones so they still have something to sell to their dwindling userbase. Anyone excited about the new 5G BlackBerry being built by Texas start-up OnwardMobility? Did you even know it was in the works before now?

A DoD Common Access Card

But this article isn’t about BlackBerry phones. It’s about something that’s even more irrelevant to consumers: the BlackBerry Smart Card Reader. Technically, this little device isn’t dependent on the phones of the same name, but it makes sense that Research In Motion (which eventually just renamed itself to BlackBerry Limited) would market the gadget under the brand of their most popular product. Though as you might expect, software was available to allow it to work with the BlackBerry phone that you almost certainly owned if you needed a dedicated smart card reader.

For those who might not be aware, a smart card in this context is a two-factor authentication token contained in an ID card. These are used extensively by organizations such as the Department of Defense, where they’re known as Common Access Cards, that require you to insert your ID card into a reader before you can log into a secure computer system. This sleek device was marketed as a portable reader that could connect to computers over USB or Bluetooth. Worn around your neck with the included lanyard, the battery-powered reader allowed the card itself to remain on the user’s body while still being readable by nearby devices.

Civilians will recognize the basic technology from modern “Chip and PIN” debit and credit cards, but we’ve never had to stick one of those into our laptop just to log in. To be sure, the BlackBerry Smart Card Reader was never intended for the average home computer user, it was sold to companies and organizations that had tight security requirements; which just so happened to be the same places that would likely already be using BlackBerry mobile devices.

Of course, times and technology change. These devices once cost $200 apiece and were purchased in vast quantities for distribution to trusted personnel, but are now all but worthless. Even in new and unopened condition, they can be had for as little as $10 USD on eBay. For that price, it’s certainly worth taking a peek inside. Perhaps the hacker community can even find new applications for these once cutting-edge devices.

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Hackaday Links: February 9, 2020

In case you thought that we learned everything we need to know to land on the Moon fifty years ago, think again. NASA still has a lot of questions, and has scheduled the first of many commercial missions designed to fill in the blanks. As part of the Artemis program, which aims to land the first women and the next men on the Moon by 2024, NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Service (CLPS) will send 16 science payloads to the Moon via two separate commercial flights. The two companies, Astrobotics and Intuitive Machines, will send landers to the Moon in 2021 using a ULA Vulcan Centaur and a SpaceX Falcon 9, respectively. Fourteen companies were selected for CLPS, and with much to learn (or relearn) about landing and working on the Moon, watch for many more flights in the years to come. We’re all for the commercialization of space, but we have to admit that things were easier to keep track of when space exploration was a little more monolithic.

It looks like millions of BlackBerry phone users will have to find something else to do with their thumbs now that TCL is getting out of the BlackBerry business. The Chinese company announced this week that they would no longer have the rights to manufacture BlackBerry-branded phones like the Key2 as of August 31, 2020. Crackberry addicts were understandably upset, but all may not be lost for those who can’t stand the virtual keyboards on most other smartphones, as there’s still a chance another manufacturer will step in to fill the void.

Hypothetical situation: You’re in need of a car, so you go to a used car dealer. You see a nice car, take it for a test drive, and decide to buy it. Money is exchanged, paperwork done, and the salesman hands you the keys. You go out to the lot to drive your new ride home only to find out that the mechanic has removed the tires. When you ask what the deal is, the salesman says, “Sorry, you didn’t buy a license for the tires.” Hypothetical perhaps, but not far off from what happened to one Tesla Model S buyer when an over-the-air update disabled the Enhanced Autopilot and Full Self-Driving features he paid for. Tesla didn’t see it that way, though, claiming that he’d need to pony up to use the new features, which originally sold for $8,000. It raises interesting questions about how the secondary automotive market will respond to the increasingly complicated relationship between hardware and software, and what you’re actually paying for when you buy a car.

Back in the early days of Bitcoin, skeptics used to dismiss the cryptocurrency by saying, “When you can pay your taxes with it, then it’s real money.” Well, that day is apparently here for the municipality of Zermatt in Switzerland, where it was announced that Bitcoin will be accepted as payment for local taxes and other official fees. The Zermatt city hall has installed a Bitcoin point-of-sale terminal, or payments can be made directly from a Bitcoin wallet after filling out the proper paperwork. Bitcoin as legal tender for public debts is not exactly new; Ohio was doing it back as far as 2018. But we find the economic implications of this interesting — as our resident econometrician [Elliot Williams] pointed out, paying taxes in anything but the national currency was considered preposterous not that long ago.

The Feather “FAUXBERRY” Is Now A Real Thing

Last month we featured an interesting project from Hackaday.io that was essentially trying to recreate the iconic Blackberry form factor for use with Adafruit’s line of Feather development boards. This would let you drop in modules for everything from LTE to packet radio, opening up a nearly limitless possibilities for handheld hacking. The only problem was, it didn’t actually exist yet.

But recently creator [arturo182] wrote in to tell us that not only had all the parts arrived, but that he’d completed assembly of the first prototype. He even put together a video about the current status of the device, which you can see after the break. The short version is: it works, and it looks fantastic.

For those who might not have seen this project the first time around, the front features a 2.6 inch 320×240 touch screen display, four general purpose buttons, a RGB NeoPixel LED for visual status display, a five way joystick, and what’s arguably the star of the show, a QWERTY keyboard originally designed for the Blackberry Q10. Around the back it has an SD card slot, a socket for the Feather module of your choice, and some handy GPIO expansion pads you can attach your own hardware onto.

[arturo182] says he’s looking at a couple cosmetic changes, but on the whole, everything works and he considers the PCB essentially done. He’ll soon be sending out a handful of test units to individuals who’ve expressed interest in helping him develop the project and then…well, he’s not really sure what’s going to happen then. Some kind of commercial release seems like the logical conclusion given the interest he’s already seen in the project, but he hasn’t quite worked out whether that will be a kit or as assembled devices.

Until then, anyone who’s looking for a pocket sized device that will let them bang out some Python with a physical keyboard will have to stick with their TI-83s.

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Regrowing A Blackberry From The Keyboard Out

Here at Hackaday we’re big fans of device-reuse, and what [arturo182] has done with the Blackberry Q10’s keyboard is a fantastic example. Sometimes you’re working on a portable device and think to yourself “what this could really use is a QWERTY keyboard”. What project doesn’t need a keyboard?

Typically this descends into a cost benefit analysis of the horrors of soldering 60ish SMD tact switches to a board, which is no fun. With more resources you can use Snaptron snap domes like the [NextThingCo’s] PocketCHIP, but those are complex to source for a one off project and the key feel can be hard to really perfect. Instead of choosing one of those routes, [arturo182] reverse engineered the keyboard from a Blackberry Q10.

When you think of good, small keyboards, there has always been one standout: Blackberry. For decades Blackberry has been known for absolutely nailing the sweet tactile feel of a tiny key under your thumb. The Q10 is one example, originally becoming avalible in 2013 as one of the launch devices for their then-new Blackberry OS 10. Like most of Blackberry’s business the OS and the phone are long out of date, but that doesn’t mean the keyboard has aged.

[Arturo182] says he can find them from the usual Chinese sources for around $3 each, which is too cheap to not explore. Building on the work of [WooDWorkeR] (on Hackaday.io) and [JoeN] to reverse engineer the matrix and to find the correct connector, he integrated the keyboard into an easy to use breakout board that exposes the key matrix, per-row backlight controls, and even the MEMS mic! More excitingly, he has built a small portable device with all the trappings of the original Q10; a color LCD, joystick, function buttons, and more in a very small footprint.

KiCAD sources, including 3D models, for the keyboard and for the breakout board are available.

Now if only someone can find a way to salvage the unusual square, high-DPI displays from the Q10, we’d be in portable device nirvana.

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Blackberry Eyes Up Car Anti-Virus Market

[Reuters] reports that BlackBerry is working with at least two car manufacturers to develop a remote malware scanner for vehicles, On finding something wrong the program would then tell drivers to pull over if they were in critical danger.

The service would be able to install over-the-air patches to idle cars and is in testing phase by Aston Martin and Range Rover. The service could be active as early as next year, making BlackBerry around $10 a month per vehicle.

Since the demise of BlackBerry in the mobile phone sector, they’ve been hard at work refocusing their attention on new emerging markets. Cars are already rolling computers, and now they’re becoming more and more networked with Bluetooth and Internet connections. This obviously leaves cars open to new types of attacks as demonstrated by [Charlie Miller] and [Chris Valasek]’s hack that uncovered vulnerabilities in Jeeps and led to a U.S. recall of 1.4 million cars.

BlackBerry seem to be hedging their bets on becoming the Kingpin of vehicle anti-virus. But do our cars really belong on the Internet in the first place?

POE Home Automation Control Panel

poe_home_automation_control_panel

[Scott] wrote in to share a project he is currently working on, a home automation system that relies on Power over Ethernet. While he’s not completely finished, he’s made some great progress, and the work he has done so far definitely piqued our interest.

Part of [Scott’s] design relies on some reverse engineered Blackberry screens we showed you a while back. He has constructed a small control panel for his apartment, which incorporates one of the aforementioned Blackberry screens, along with 10 tactile switches and a PIR sensor. The panel is built to be mounted in a wall or as a standalone unit, allowing him to control various lights and appliances throughout his home.

[Scott] spent a lot of time working on the communications protocol and UI for his control panel. As it sits now, the panel takes advantage of a VNC-like protocol he designed, which allows him to interact with a Java application residing on his desktop computer.

Things are looking awesome so far, and [Scott] already has a handful of improvements planned for the near future. We can’t wait to check it out when it’s finished.

Blackberry LCD Reverse Engineering

blackberry_lcd

[Scott] was looking to source some LCD screens for an upcoming project, and was considering buying them from SparkFun. While the Nokia panels they sell are not expensive, they aren’t necessarily the cheapest option either – especially when building in volume.

He searched around for something he could use instead, and settled on Blackberry screens. Old Blackberry models were even more durable than the current offerings, plus companies are trying to get rid of old handsets by the truckload. The only problem was that he could not find any information online that would show him how to write to the screens.

It took a bit of digging, but he eventually determined which ICs were used to drive the LCD screen. He had no luck finding screen pinout information online, so after spending a few hours testing things with his multimeter, he came up with a full listing on his own.

He wired up a connector so that he could use the screen on a breadboard, then got busy writing code to display some text on the screen. Everything came together nicely as you can see in the video below, and he has released his code in case anyone else is looking to repurpose some old Blackberry screens.

All we want to know is what sort of project all these screens are going to be used in.

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