Don’t you just hate it when you walk out of the bathroom with toilet paper stuck to your shoe? That’s a little bit like what happened when the Mars helicopter Ingenuity picked up a strange bit of debris on one of its landing pads. The foreign object was spotted on the helicopter’s down-pointing navigation camera, and looks for all the world like a streamer of toilet paper flopping around in the rotor wash. The copter eventually shed the debris, which wafted down to the Martian surface with no further incident, and without any apparent damage to the aircraft. NASA hasn’t said more about what the debris isn’t — aliens — than what it is, which of course is hard to say at this point. We’re going to go out on a limb and say it’s probably something we brought there, likely a scrap of plastic waste lost during the descent and landing phase of the mission. Or, you know, it’s getting to be close to Halloween, a time when the landscape gets magically festooned with toilet paper overnight. You never know.
You know the old trope: James Bond is killed but it turns out to be someone else in an incredibly good-looking Sean Connery mask. Mission: Impossible and Scooby Doo regularly had some variation of the theme. But, apparently, truth is stranger than fiction. The CIA has — or at least had — a chief of disguise. A former holder of that office now works for the International Spy Museum and has some very interesting stories about the real masks CIA operatives would use in the field.
According to the video you can see below, the agency enlisted the help of Hollywood — particularly the mask maker from Planet of the Apes — to help them with this project. Of course, in the movies, you can take hours to apply a mask and control how it is lit, how closely the camera examines it, and if something goes wrong you just redo the scene. If you are buying secret plans and your nose falls off, it would probably be hard to explain.
We take orbital imagery for granted these days, but there was a time that it was high technology and highly secretive. [Scott Manley] has a good overview of the CIA’s Corona spy satellites, along with declassified images from the early days of the program.
It seems strange today, but the spy images needed high resolution and the only practical technology at the time was film. The satellite held a whopping 3,000 feet of film and, once shot, a capsule or bucket would return to Earth for retrieval and development. They didn’t make it to land — or at least they weren’t supposed to. The CIA didn’t want opponents sweeping up the film so an airplane was supposed to snag the bucket as it descended on a parachute, a topic covered in [Tom Nardi’s] article about the history of catching stuff as it falls from space.
The early cameras could see detail down to about 40 feet. By the end of the program in the 1970s, improved cameras could see down to 3 feet or less. Later satellites had a 3D-capable camera and multiple return buckets. The satellites were — officially — a program to expose biological samples to the space environment and return them for analysis. The Discover program was pure cover and the whole thing was declassified in 1992.
Of course, film from airplanes also had a role. Some spy satellites tried to scan film and send the data back, but that saw more use on lunar missions where returning a capsule to Earth was a lot more difficult.
There have been a few moments in the past few years, when a conspiracy theory is suddenly demonstrated to be based in fact. Once upon a time, it was an absurd suggestion that the NSA had data taps in AT&T buildings across the country. Just like Snowden’s revelations confirmed those conspiracy theories, a news in February confirmed some theories about Crypto AG, a Swiss cryptography vendor.
The whole story reads like a cold-war era spy thriller, and like many of those novels, it all starts with World War II. As a result of a family investment, Boris Hagelin found himself at the helm of Aktiebolaget Cryptograph, later renamed to Crypto AG (1952), a Swedish company that built and sold cipher machines that competed with the famous Enigma machine. At the start of the war, Hagelin decided that Sweden was not the place to be, and moved to the United States. This was a fortuitous move, as it allowed Hagelin to market his company’s C-38 cipher machine to the US military. That device was designated the M-209 by the army, and became the standard in-the-field encryption machine.
All through the cold war, there was a high-stakes game of cat and mouse in play. Nuclear powers like the United States and the Soviet Union would hide submarines armed with nuclear missiles underwater. The other side would try to know where they were so they could be targeted in the event of war. The common wisdom was that the United States had many high tech gadgets to help track enemy submarines, but that the Soviet Union was way behind in this area. This was proven false when a Soviet Victor-class boat followed a US missile submarine for six days. Now, a recently declassified CIA report shows how the Soviets didn’t use sonar at all but developed their own technology.
There is something fascinating about submarines. Like an old sailing ship, submarines are often out of touch with their command bases and the captain is the final authority. Like a space ship, the submarine has to survive in an inimical environment. I guess in all three cases, the crew doesn’t just use technology, they depend on it.
Although the submarine has some non-military uses, there are probably more military subs than any other type. After all, a sub is as close to a cloaking device as any real-life military vehicle has ever had. Before modern technology offered ways to find submarines using sonar or magnetic anomalies, a completely submerged submarine was effectively invisible.
There was a lot of speculation that the Soviet Union lacked sufficient technology to use sonar the way the US did. However, in some cases, they had simply developed different types of detection — many of which the West had discarded as impractical.
In the leafy suburbs of northern Virginia, a place ruled by homeowner’s associations with tremendous power to dictate everything from the color of one’s front door to the length of grass in the lawn, something as heinous as garage doors suddenly failing to open on command is sure to cause a kerfuffle. We’ve seen this sort of thing before, where errant RF emissions cause unintentional interference, and such stories aren’t terribly interesting because the FCC usually steps in and clears things up. But this story is a little spicier given the source of the interference: Warrenton Training Center, a classified US government communications station located adjacent to the afflicted neighborhood. WTC is known to be a CIA signals intelligence station, home to spooks doing spooky stuff, including running high-power numbers stations. The interference isn’t caused by anything as cloak-and-dagger as that, though; rather, it comes from new land-mobile radios that the Department of Defense is deploying. The new radios use the 380-400 MHz band, which is allocated to the Federal Government and unlicensed Part 15 devices, like garage door remotes. But Part 15 rules, which are clearly printed on every device covered by them, state that the devices have to accept unwanted interference, even when it causes a malfunction. So the HOA members who are up in arms and demanding that the government buy them new garage door openers are likely to be disappointed.
Speaking of spooks, if you’re tired of the prying electronic eyes of facial recognition cameras spoiling your illusion of anonymity, have we got a solution for you. The Opt-Out Cap is the low-tech way to instantly change your face for a better one, or at least one that’s tied to someone else. In a move which is sure not to arouse suspicion in public, doffing the baseball cap deploys a three-piece curtain of semi-opaque fabric, upon which is printed the visage of someone who totally doesn’t look creepy or sketchy in any way. Complete instructions are provided if you want to make one before your next trip to the ATM.
It’s always a great day when a new Ken Shirriff post pops up in our feed, and his latest post is no exception. In it, Ken goes into great detail about the history of the 80×24 (or 25) line standard for displays. While that may sound a bit dry, it’s anything but. After dispelling some of the myths and questionable theories of the format’s origin – sorry, it’s not just because punch cards had 80 columns – he discusses the transition from teletypes to CRTs, focusing on the very cool IBM 2260 Display Station. This interesting beast used an acoustic delay line made of 50′ (15 m) of nickel wire. It stored data as a train of sound pulses traveling down the wire, which worked well and was far cheaper than core memory, even if it was susceptible to vibrations from people walking by it and needed a two-hour warm-up period before use. It’s a fascinating bit of retrocomputing history.
A quick mention of a contest we just heard about that might be right up your alley: the Tech To Protect coding challenge is going on now. Focused on applications for public safety and first responders, the online coding challenge addresses ten different areas, such as mapping LTE network coverage to aid first responders or using augmented reality while extricating car crash victims. It’s interesting stuff, but if you’re interested you’ll have to hurry – the deadline is November 15.
And finally, Supercon starts this week! It’s going to be a blast, and the excitement to hack all the badges and see all the talks is building rapidly. We know not everyone can go, and if you’re going to miss it, we feel for you. Don’t forget that you can still participate vicariously through our livestream. We’ll also be tweet-storming and running a continuous chat on Hackaday.io to keep everyone looped in.
If you owned a classic Commodore home computer you might not have known it at the time, but it would have contained a versatile integrated circuit called the MOS6526. This so-called CIA chip, for Complex Interface Adaptor, contained parallel and serial ports, timers, and a time-of-day counter. Like so many similar pieces of classic silicon it’s long out of production, so [Daniel Molina] decided to replicate a modern version of it on a PCB using 74HGT CMOS logic.
The result will be a stack of boards board that appear to be about the size of a 3.5″ floppy disk covered in surface-mount 74 chips, and connected to the CIA socket of the Commodore by a ribbon cable. The base board is the only one completed so far and contains the data direction registers and parallel ports, but the succeding boards will each carry one of the chip’s other functions.
It seems rather odd to use so much silicon to recreate a single chip, but the point is not of course to provide a practical CIA replacement. Instead it’s instructive, it shows us how these interfaces work as well as just how much circuitry is crammed into the chip. It’s no surprise that it’s inspired by the C74 Project, a TTL 6502 processor that we featured last year.