RTL-SDR: Seven Years Later

Before swearing my fealty to the Jolly Wrencher, I wrote for several other sites, creating more or less the same sort of content I do now. In fact, the topical overlap was enough that occasionally those articles would get picked up here on Hackaday. One of those articles, which graced the pages of this site a little more than seven years ago, was Getting Started with RTL-SDR. The original linked article has long since disappeared, and the site it was hosted on is now apparently dedicated to Nintendo games, but you can probably get the gist of what it was about from the title alone.

An “Old School” RTL-SDR Receiver

When I wrote that article in 2012, the RTL-SDR project and its community were still in their infancy. It took some real digging to find out which TV tuners based on the Realtek RTL2832U were supported, what adapters you needed to connect more capable antennas, and how to compile all the software necessary to get them listening outside of their advertised frequency range. It wasn’t exactly the most user-friendly experience, and when it was all said and done, you were left largely to your own devices. If you didn’t know how to create your own receivers in GNU Radio, there wasn’t a whole lot you could do other than eavesdrop on hams or tune into local FM broadcasts.

Nearly a decade later, things have changed dramatically. The RTL-SDR hardware and software has itself improved enormously, but perhaps more importantly, the success of the project has kicked off something of a revolution in the software defined radio (SDR) world. Prior to 2012, SDRs were certainly not unobtainable, but they were considerably more expensive. Back then, the most comparable device on the market would have been the FUNcube dongle, a nearly $200 USD receiver that was actually designed for receiving data from CubeSats. Anything cheaper than that was likely to be a kit, and often operated within a narrower range of frequencies.

Today, we would argue that an RTL-SDR receiver is a must-have tool. For the cost of a cheap set of screwdrivers, you can gain access to a world that not so long ago would have been all but hidden to the amateur hacker. Let’s take a closer look at a few obvious ways that everyone’s favorite low-cost SDR has helped free the RF hacking genie from its bottle in the last few years.

Continue reading “RTL-SDR: Seven Years Later”

Your Table Is Ready, Courtesy Of HackRF

Have you ever found yourself in a crowded restaurant on a Saturday night, holding onto one of those little gadgets that blinks and vibrates when it’s your turn to be seated? Next time, bust out the HackRF and follow along with [Tony Tiger] as he shows how it can be used to easily fire them off. Of course, there won’t actually be a table ready when you triumphantly show your blinking pager to the staff; but there’s only so much an SDR can do.

Even if you aren’t looking to jump the line at your favorite dining establishment, the video that [Tony] has put together serves as an excellent practical example of using software defined radio (SDR) to examine and ultimately replicate a wireless communications protocol. The same techniques demonstrated here could be applied to any number of devices out in the wild with little to no modification. Granted these “restaurant pagers” aren’t exactly high security devices to begin with, but you’d be horrified surprised how many other devices out there take a similarly cavalier attitude towards security.

[Tony] starts by using inspectrum to examine the Frequency-shift keying (FSK) modulation used by the 467.750 Mhz devices, and from there, uses Universal Radio Hacker to capture the actual binary data being sent over the air. Between studying the transmissions and the information he found online, he was eventually able to piece together the packet structure used by the restaurant’s base station.

Finally, he wrote a Python script which generates packets based on which pager he wants to set off. If he’s feeling particularly mischievous, he can even set them all off at once. The script outputs a binary file which is then loaded into GNU Radio for transmission via the HackRF. [Tony] says he’s not quite ready to release his script yet, but he gives enough information in the video that the intrepid hacker could probably get their own version up and running by the time he gets it posted up to GitHub anyway.

We saw some very similar techniques demonstrated at the recent WOPR Summit security conference, so once you’re done hacking the local restaurants, you can take these same lessons and apply them to the rest of the Internet of Things. If you’re wondering, it’s even easier to eavesdrop on the non-restaurant pagers.

Continue reading “Your Table Is Ready, Courtesy Of HackRF”

RTL-SDR Paves Way To Alexa Controlled Blinds

You’d be forgiven for occasionally looking at a project, especially one that involves reverse engineering an unknown communication protocol, and thinking it might be out of your league. We’ve all been there. But as more and more of the devices that we use are becoming wireless black boxes, we’re all going to have to get a bit more comfortable with jumping into the deep end from time to time. Luckily, there are no shortage of success stories out there that we can look at for inspiration.

A case in point are the wireless blinds that [Stuart Hinson] decided would be a lot more useful if he could control them with his Amazon Alexa. There’s plenty of documentation on how to get Alexa to do your bidding, so he wasn’t worried about that. The tricky part was commanding the wireless blinds, as all he had to go on was the frequency printed on the back of the remote.

Luckily, in the era of cheap RTL-SDR devices, that’s often all you need. [Stuart] plugged in his receiver and fired up the incredibly handy Universal Radio Hacker. Since he knew the frequency, it was just a matter of tuning in and hitting the button on the remote a couple times to get a good capture. The software then broke it down to the binary sequence the remote was sending out.

Now here’s where [Stuart] lucked out. The manufacturers took the easy way out and didn’t include any sort of security features, or even bother with acknowledging that the signal had been received. All he needed to do was parrot out the binary sequence with a standard 433MHz transmitter hooked up to an ESP8266, and the blinds took the bait. This does mean that anyone close enough can take control of these particular blinds, but that’s a story for another time.

We took a look at the Universal Radio Hacker a year or so back, and it’s good to see it picking up steam. We’ve also covered the ins and outs of creating your own Alexa skills, if you want to get a jump on that side of the project.