Hackaday Links: April 26, 2020

Gosh, what a shame: it turns out that perhaps 2 billion phones won’t be capable of COVID-19 contact-tracing using the API that Google and Apple are jointly developing. The problem is that the scheme the two tech giants have concocted, which Elliot Williams expertly dissected recently, is based on Bluetooth LE. If a phone lacks a BLE chipset, then it won’t work with apps built on the contact-tracing API, which uses the limited range of BLE signals as a proxy for the physical proximity of any two people. If a user is reported to be COVID-19 positive, all the people whose BLE beacons were received by the infected user’s phone within a defined time period can be anonymously notified of their contact. As Elliot points out, numerous questions loom around this scheme, not least of which is privacy, but for now, something like a third of phones in mature smartphone markets won’t be able to participate, and perhaps two-thirds of the phones in developing markets are not compatible. For those who don’t like the privacy-threatening aspects of this scheme, pulling an old phone out and dusting it off might not be a bad idea.

We occasionally cover stories where engineers in industrial settings use an Arduino for a quick-and-dirty automation solution. This is uniformly met with much teeth-gnashing and hair-rending in the comments asserting that Arduinos are not appropriate for industrial use. Whether true or not, such comments miss the point that the Arduino solution is usually a stop-gap or proof-of-concept deal. But now the purists and pedants can relax, because Automation Direct is offering Arduino-compatible, industrial-grade programmable controllers. Their ProductivityOpen line is compatible with the Arduino IDE while having industrial certifications and hardening against harsh conditions, with a rich line of shields available to piece together complete automation controllers. For the home-gamer, an Arduino in an enclosure that can withstand harsh conditions and only cost $49 might fill a niche.

Speaking of Arduinos and Arduino accessories, better watch out if you’ve got any modules and you come under the scrutiny of an authoritarian regime, because you could be accused of being a bomb maker. Police in Hong Kong allegedly arrested a 20-year-old student and posted a picture of parts he used to manufacture a “remote detonated bomb”. The BOM for the bomb was strangely devoid of anything with wireless capabilities or, you know, actual explosives, and instead looks pretty much like the stuff found on any of our workbenches or junk bins. Pretty scary stuff.

If you’ve run through every binge-worthy series on Netflix and are looking for a bit of space-nerd entertainment, have we got one for you. Scott Manley has a new video that goes into detail on the four different computers used for each Apollo mission. We knew about the Apollo Guidance Computers that guided the Command Module and the Lunar Module, and the Launch Vehicle Digital Computer that got the whole stack into orbit and on the way to the Moon, but we’d never heard of the Abort Guidance System, a backup to the Lunar Module AGC intended to get the astronauts back into lunar orbit in the event of an emergency. And we’d also never heard that there wasn’t a common architecture for these machines, to the point where each had its own word length. The bit about infighting between MIT and IBM was entertaining too.

And finally, if you still find yourself with time on your hands, why not try your hand at pen-testing a military satellite in orbit? That’s the offer on the table to hackers from the US Air Force, proprietor of some of the tippy-toppest secret hardware in orbit. The Hack-A-Sat Space Security Challenge is aimed at exposing weaknesses that have been inadvertantly baked into space hardware during decades of closed development and secrecy, vulnerabilities that may pose risks to billions of dollars worth of irreplaceable assets. The qualification round requires teams to hack a grounded test satellite before moving on to attacking an orbiting platform during DEFCON in August, with prizes going to the winning teams. Get paid to hack government assets and not get arrested? Maybe 2020 isn’t so bad after all.

Live Hacking And A MIDI Keytar

We can’t think of where you’d buy a new, cheap, MIDI keytar that’s just a keyboard and a handle with some pitch and mod wheels or ribbon controllers. This is a format that died in the 90s or thereabouts. Yes, the Rock Band controller exists, but my point stands. In fact, the closest you can get to a cheap, simple MIDI keytar is the Alesis Vortex Wireless 2 Keytar, but the buttons on the handle don’t make any sense. [marcan] of Wii and Kinect hacking fame took note. (YouTube, embedded below.)

Reverse engineering is a research project, and all research projects begin with looking at the docs. When it comes to consumer electronics, the best resource is the documents a company is required to submit to the FCC (shout out to FCC.io), which gave [marcan] the user manual, and photos of the guts of the keytar. The ‘system update download’ files are living on the Alesis servers, and that’s really all you need to reverse engineer a keytar.

The first step is extracting the actual device firmware from whatever software package appears on the desktop when you download the software update. This is a simple job for 7zip, and after looking at a binary dump of the firmware, [marcan] discovered this was for an STM chip. With the datasheet of the chip, [marcan] got the entry point for the firmware, some values, and the real hardware hacking began. All of this was done with IDA.

This is a five-hour hacking session of cross-referencing the MIDI spec and a microcontroller built thirty years after this spec was developed. It’s an amazing bit of work just to find the bit of code than handled the buttons on the keytar grip, and it gets even better when the patched firmware is uploaded. If you want to ‘learn hacking’, as so many submitters on our tip line want to do, this is what you need to watch. Thanks [hmn] for the tip.

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All Things Enigma Hack Chat

Join us Wednesday at noon Pacific time for the All Things Enigma Hack Chat!

This week’s Hack Chat is a bit of a departure for us because our host, Simon Jansen, has tackled so many interesting projects that it’s hard to settle on one topic. Simon is a multidisciplinary hacker whose interests run the gamut from building an ammo-can Apple ][ to a literal steampunk Rickroller. How about a Bender Brewer? Or a MAME in a TARDIS? Or perhaps making an old phone play music to restore a car by? Oh, and remember that awesome ASCII animation of Star Wars: Episode IV? That was Simon.

So, a little hard to choose a topic, but we asked Simon to talk a bit about his recent Enigma watches. He has managed to put an electronic emulation of the Enigma cypher machine from World War II into both a wristwatch and, more recently, a pocket watch. They’re both gorgeous builds that required a raft of skills to complete. We’ll start there and see where the conversation takes us!

Please join us for this Hack Chat, where we’ll discuss:

  • Where the fascination with Enigma came from;
  • Tools, techniques, and shop setup;
  • Melding multiple, disparate skill sets; and
  • What sorts of new projects might we see soon?

You are, of course, encouraged to add your own questions to the discussion. You can do that by leaving a comment on the All Things Enigma Hack Chat and we’ll put that in the queue for the Hack Chat discussion.

join-hack-chatOur Hack Chats are live community events on the Hackaday.io Hack Chat group messaging. This week we’ll be sitting down on Wednesday, February 27, at noon, Pacific time. If time zones have got you down, we have a handy time zone converter.

Click that speech bubble to the right, and you’ll be taken directly to the Hack Chat group on Hackaday.io. You don’t have to wait until Wednesday; join whenever you want and you can see what the community is talking about.

Portable Hacking Unit Combines Pi With WiFi Pineapple

Sometimes you need to hack on the go. [Supertechguy] has put together an interesting system for hacking on the hoof called the Pineapple Pi. This combines a Raspberry Pi 3 with a seven-inch touchscreen and a Hak 5 WiFi Pineapple into a handy portable package that puts all of the latest WiFi and ethernet hacking tools to hand. The package also includes a 20,100 mAh battery, so you won’t even need a wall socket to do some testing. It’s a bit of a rough build — it is held together with velcro, for instance — but it’s a good place to start if you are looking to make a portable, standalone system for testing WiFi networks.

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Scotty Allen Visits Strange Parts, Builds An IPhone

Scotty Allen has a YouTube blog called Strange Parts; maybe you’ve seen his super-popular video about building his own iPhone “from scratch”. It’s a great story, and it’s also a pretext for a slightly deeper dive into the electronics hardware manufacturing, assembly, and repair capital of the world: Shenzhen, China. After his talk at the 2017 Superconference, we got a chance to sit down with Scotty and ask about cellphones and his other travels. Check it out:

The Story of the Phone

Scotty was sitting around with friends, drinking in one of Shenzhen’s night markets, and talking about how bizarre some things seem to outsiders. There are people sitting on street corners, shucking cellphones like you’d shuck oysters, and harvesting the good parts inside. Electronics parts, new and used, don’t come from somewhere far away and there’s no mail-ordering. A ten-minute walk over to the markets will get you everything you need. The desire to explain some small part of this alternate reality to outsiders was what drove Scotty to dig into China’s cellphone ecosystem.

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34C3: Hacking Into A CPU’s Microcode

Inside every modern CPU since the Intel Pentium fdiv bug, assembly instructions aren’t a one-to-one mapping to what the CPU actually does. Inside the CPU, there is a decoder that turns assembly into even more primitive instructions that are fed into the CPU’s internal scheduler and pipeline. The code that drives the decoder is the CPU’s microcode, and it lives in ROM that’s normally inaccessible. But microcode patches have been deployed in the past to fix up CPU hardware bugs, so it’s certainly writeable. That’s practically an invitation, right? At least a group from the Ruhr University Bochum took it as such, and started hacking on the microcode in the AMD K8 and K10 processors.

The hurdles to playing around in the microcode are daunting. It turns assembly language into something, but the instruction set that the inner CPU, ALU, et al use was completely unknown. [Philip] walked us through their first line of attack, which was essentially guessing in the dark. First they mapped out where each x86 assembly codes went in microcode ROM. Using this information, and the ability to update the microcode, they could load and execute arbitrary microcode. They still didn’t know anything about the microcode, but they knew how to run it.

So they started uploading random microcode to see what it did. This random microcode crashed almost every time. The rest of the time, there was no difference between the input and output states. But then, after a week of running, a breakthrough: the microcode XOR’ed. From this, they found out the syntax of the command and began to discover more commands through trial and error. Quite late in the game, they went on to take the chip apart and read out the ROM contents with a microscope and OCR software, at least well enough to verify that some of the microcode operations were burned in ROM.

The result was 29 microcode operations including logic, arithmetic, load, and store commands — enough to start writing microcode code. The first microcode programs written helped with further discovery, naturally. But before long, they wrote microcode backdoors that triggered when a given calculation was performed, and stealthy trojans that exfiltrate data encrypted or “undetectably” through introducing faults programmatically into calculations. This means nearly undetectable malware that’s resident inside the CPU. (And you think the Intel Management Engine hacks made you paranoid!)

[Benjamin] then bravely stepped us through the browser-based attack live, first in a debugger where we could verify that their custom microcode was being triggered, and then outside of the debugger where suddenly xcalc popped up. What launched the program? Calculating a particular number on a website from inside an unmodified browser.

He also demonstrated the introduction of a simple mathematical error into the microcode that made an encryption routine fail when another particular multiplication was done. While this may not sound like much, if you paid attention in the talk on revealing keys based on a single infrequent bit error, you’d see that this is essentially a few million times more powerful because the error occurs every time.

The team isn’t done with their microcode explorations, and there’s still a lot more of the command set left to discover. So take this as a proof of concept that nearly completely undetectable trojans could exist in the microcode that runs between the compiled code and the CPU on your machine. But, more playfully, it’s also an invitation to start exploring yourself. It’s not every day that an entirely new frontier in computer hacking is bust open.

Art, Craft, Make, Hack, Whatever

Anyone who has spent much time reading Hackaday, or in the real world in or around a few hackspaces, will know that ours is a community of diverse interests. In the same place you will find a breathtaking range of skills and interests, people working with software, electronics, textiles, and all conceivable materials and media. And oftentimes in the same person: a bare-metal kernel guru might spend their time in a hackspace making tables from freight pallets rather than coding.

Through it all run a variety of threads, identities if you will, through which the differing flavours of our wider community define themselves. Words like “Hacker” and “Maker” you may identify with, but when I mention words like “Crafter” or “Artist”, perhaps they might meet with some resistance. After all, artists paint things, don’t they, and crafters? They make wooly hats and corn dollies! Continue reading “Art, Craft, Make, Hack, Whatever”