PostMarketOS Saves Old Smartphones

Modern smartphones, even the budget models, are extremely impressive pieces of technology. Powerful ARM processors, plenty of RAM, and an incredible number of sensors and radios are packed into a device that in some cases are literally given away for free when you sign up for a service plan. Unfortunately manufacturers are not obligated to keep up with software updates, and while the hardware may be willing to keep on fighting, the user is often pushed to upgrade due to perennially outdated software. Even if you aren’t the kind of person to be put off by using a phone that doesn’t have the latest and greatest OS, the lack of software security updates pose a clear threat in a world where mobile devices are increasingly targeted by attackers.

But what if the operating system on your phone worked more like the on one your computer? That’s the dream of postmarketOS, a Linux distribution created by [Oliver Smith] that is designed to be installed on outdated (mostly Android) smartphones and tablets. He’s recently made a comprehensive blog post about the state of the project a little over 6 months since it started, and we have to say things are looking very impressive so far.

One of the key goals of postmarketOS is to avoid the fragmented nature of previous attempts at replacing Android with a community-developed operated system. By avoiding binary blobs and focusing on getting the mainline Linux kernel running on as much as the hardware as possible, there’s no need to make different forks and releases for each supported device. By unifying the OS as much as far as it can be, an upstream update can be pushed to all devices running postmarketOS regardless of their make and model, just like with traditional Linux distributions.

The blog post shows two things very clearly: that the community is extremely excited and dedicated to the prospect of running what is essentially desktop Linux on old smartphones and tablets, and that postmarketOS still has a long way to go. In these early days, many devices aren’t what could be considered “daily drivers” by most standards. In fact, the blog post mentions that they’ve decided to abandon the term “supported” when talking about devices, and make no claims beyond the fact that they will boot.

Still, incredible progress is being made on everything from mainline kernel development to getting standard Linux desktops such as Gnome, MATE and XFCE4 running. Work has also been done on the backend process of compiling and packaging up components of the operating system itself, promising to speed up development times even for those who don’t have a beefy machine they can dedicate to compiling. The blog post ends with a helpful list of things the reader can do to help support postmarketOS, ranging from making your own t-shirts to porting to new hardware.

At Hackaday we’ve seen our fair share of hackers and makers re-purposing old smartphones and tablets, keeping them out of the landfills they would almost certainly end up in otherwise. A project that aims to make it even easier to hack these cheap and incredibly useful devices is music to our ears.

34C3: North Korea’s Consumer Technology

[Will Scott] and [Gabe Edwards] shed some light on the current state of consumer computing technology at 34C3 in their talk DPRK Consumer Technology. The pair has also created a website to act as a clearinghouse for this information — including smartphone OS images up at koreaComputerCenter.org.

Not a whole lot is known about what technology North Korean citizens have available to them. We have seen Red Star OS, the Mac-like Linux based operating system used on PC based desktops. But what about other systems like smartphones?

[Will] and [Gabe] found that cell phones in North Korea are typically manufactured by Chinese companies, running a custom version of the Android Operating system. The phone hardware is common — the phone sold as the Pyongyang 2407 in North Korea is also sold in India as the Genie v5. If you can get your hands on the Genie, you can run the Korean version of the Android OS on that hardware.

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Why You Should Use Your Router As A Security Camera

A home security camera can be great for peace of mind, and keeping an eye on the house while you’re away. The popular option these days is an IP-based device that is accessible over the Internet through an ethernet or wireless connection to your home router. But what if you could cut out the middle man, and instead turn your router itself into the security camera? [Fred] is here to show us how it’s done.

The hack begins by parsing the original router’s firmware. Through a simple text search, a debug page was identified which allowed telnet access to the router to be enabled. This gives access to a root shell, allowing full control over the Linux system running the show.

After backing everything up, [Fred] grabbed the source code from Netgear and recompiled the kernal with USB video and Video4Linux2 support. This allows the router to talk to a standard USB webcam. It’s then a simple matter of using opkg to install software to set up the router to record video when motion is detected.

Overall, it’s fairly straightforward, but [Fred] came up with an ingenious twist. Because the router itself is acting as the security camera, he is able to set up the camera to only arm itself when his smartphone (and thus, [Fred] himself) is not at home. This prevents the recording of footage of [Fred] moving around the house, allowing the router to only record important footage for security purposes.

It’s possible to do great things with routers – most of them are just tiny boxes running Linux anyway. Check out this one used as an online energy meter.

Hackaday Prize Entry: Giving Phones Their Tactile Buttons Back

In the before-times, we could send text messages without looking at our phones. It was glorious, and something 90s Kids™ wish we could bring to our gigantic glowing rectangles stuck in our pocket. For his Hackaday Prize Entry, [Kyle] is bringing just a little bit of this sightless functionality back to the modern smartphone. He’s building a tactile remote control for smartphones. With this device, you can navigate through icons, push buttons, and even zoom in on maps with real, physical controls.

This keyboard is built around a handful of Cherry MX mechanical key switches for a great tactile feel, and a single capacitive touch strip for zooming in and out on the screen. This is pretty much exactly what you want for real, mechanical buttons for a smartphone — a satisfying click and a zoomy strip. The microcontroller used in this device is the BGM111 Bluetooth LE module from Silicon Labs. It’s an extremely low-power module that is able to read a cap touch strip and a few button inputs. Power is provided by a 2032 coin cell, giving the entire device a low profile form factor (except for the MX switches, but whatever), and more than enough run time.

It should be noted that [Kyle] is building this as a solution to distracted driving. True, looking down to send a quick text while driving is the cause of thousands of deaths. However, while typing out a quick note with a T9 keyboard on your Nokia seems like it’s less dangerous, it’s really not. Doing anything while driving is distracted driving, and there are volumes of studies to back this up. Outside the intended use case, this is a fantastic project that uses a neat little Bluetooth module we don’t see much of, and there are some pretty cool applications of a tiny wireless mechanical keyboard with cap touch we can think of.

Detecting Dire Diseases – with a Selfie?

They say the eyes are the windows to the soul. But with a new smartphone app, the eyes may be a diagnostic window into the body that might be used to prevent a horrible disease — pancreatic cancer. A research team at the University of Washington led by [Alex Mariakakis] recently described what they call “BiliScreen,” a smartphone app to detect pancreatic disease by imaging a patient’s eyes.

Pancreatic cancer is particularly deadly because it remains asymptomatic until it’s too late. One early symptom is jaundice, a yellow-green discoloration of the skin and the whites of the eyes as the blood pigment bilirubin accumulates in the body. By the time enough bilirubin accumulates to be visible to the naked eye, things have generally progressed to the inoperable stage. BiliScreen captures images of the eyes and uses image analysis techniques to detect jaundice long before anyone would notice. To control lighting conditions, a 3D-printed mask similar to Google’s Cardboard can be used; there’s also a pair of glasses that look like something from [Sir Elton John]’s collection that can be used to correct for ambient lighting. Results look promising so far, with BiliScreen correctly identifying elevated bilirubin levels 90% of the time, as compared to later blood tests. Their research paper has all the details (PDF link).

Tools like BiliScreen could really make a difference in the early diagnosis and prevention of diseases. For an even less intrusive way to intervene in disease processes early, we might also be able to use WiFi to passively detect Parkinson’s.

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Sneak Thieves Beware: A Pi Watcheth

Ever have that strange feeling that somebody is breaking into your workshop? Well, Hackaday.io user [Kenny] has whipped up a tutorial on how to scratch that itch by turning a spare Raspberry Pi you may have kicking around into a security camera system that notifies you at a moment’s notice.

The system works like this: a Raspberry Pi 3 and connected camera module remain vigilant, constantly scanning for motion and recording video. If motion is detected, it immediately snaps and sends a picture to the user’s mobile via PushBullet, then begins recording video. If there is still movement after a few seconds, the process repeats until the area is once again devoid of motion. This also permits a two-way communication with your Pi security system, so you can check in on the live feed whenever you feel the urge.

To get this working for you — assuming that your Pi has been recently updated — setup requires setting up a PushBullet account as well as installing it on your mobile and  linking it with an API. For your Pi, you can go ahead with setting up some Python PushBullet libraries, installing FFmpeg, Pi Camera Notifier, and others. Or, install the ready-to-go image [Kenny] has prepared. He gets into the nitty-gritty of the code in his guide, so check that out or watch the tutorial video after the break.

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eMMC to SD Hack Rescues Data from a Waterlogged Phone

How do I get the data off this destroyed phone? It’s a question many of us have had to ponder – either ourselves or for friends or family. The easy answer is either spend a mint for a recovery service or consider it lost forever.  [Trochilidae] didn’t accept either of those options, so he broke out the soldering iron and rescued his own data.

A moment’s inattention with a child near a paddling pool left [Trochilidae’s] coworker’s wife with a waterlogged, dead phone. She immediately took apart the phone and attempted to dry it out, but it was too late. The phone was a goner. It also had four months of photos and other priceless data on it. [Trochilidae] was brought in to try to recover the data.

The phone was dead, but chances are the data stored within it was fine. Most devices built in the last few years use eMMC flash devices as their secondary storage. eMMC stands for Embedded Multimedia Card. What it means is that the device not only holds the flash memory array, it also contains a flash controller which handles wear leveling, flash writing, and host interface. The controller can be configured to respond exactly like a standard SD card.

The hard part is getting a tiny 153 ball BGA package to fit into an SD card slot.  [Trochilidae] accomplished that by cutting open a microSD to SD adapter. He then carefully soldered the balls from the eMMC to the pins of the adapter. Thin gauge wire, a fine tip iron, and a microscope are essentials here. Once the physical connections were made,  [Trochilidae] plugged the card into his Linux machine. The card was recognized, and he managed to pull all the data off with a single dd command.

[Trochilidae] doesn’t say what happened after the data was copied, but we’re guessing he analyzed the dump to determine the filesystem, then mounted it as a drive. The end result was a ton of recovered photos and a very happy coworker.

If you like crazy soldering exploits, check out this PSP reverse engineering hack, where every pin of a BGA was soldered to magnet wire.