If you work at all with British software or hardware engineers, you’ll find that there’s an entire generation perhaps now somewhere between their mid-40s and mid-50s, who stand slightly apart from their peers in their background and experience. These were the lucky teenagers who benefited from the British government’s 1980s push to educate youngsters in computing, and who unlike those before or who followed, arrived at university engineering courses fresh from school fully conversant with every facet of a computer from the hardware upwards.
[Alan Pope] is from that generation, and he relates a tale from his youth that wasn’t so out of place back in those days, of how he wrote what we’d now call a simple virus for the BBC Micro. Better still, he’s re-created it.
The post is as much a delightful trip back through that era of microcomputing, including an entertaining aside as he shared an airline journey with BBC Micro designer Chris Turner, and it serves as a reminder of how the BBC Micro’s disk operating system worked. There was a !boot file, which was what would be run from the disk at startup, and his bit of code would subvert that and hide itself in the machine’s so-called sideways RAM. The payload was pretty simple, every 32 soft reboots it would print a “Hello world” message, but it seems that was enough back in 1989 to get him into trouble. The 2023 equivalent works, but we’re guessing no teacher will come for him this time.
The result of this work is a printed dodecahedron, assembled from multiple components. Each face of the dodecahedron consists of a 5-sided pentagon, and is a separate piece. Each face contains magnets which allow the various faces to stick together. Amazingly, when a bunch of these faces are all thrown into a container and jumbled together, they eventually assemble themselves into complete dodecahedrons.
While it’s no virus, and the parts can’t replicate themselves en masse, the demonstration is instructive. Viruses themselves self-assemble in a similar fashion, thanks to sub-units that interact with each other in the tumultuous environment of a host cell.
We love a good teaching tool around these parts. 3D printing has the benefit of allowing teachers to create their own such devices with just a few hours spent in some CAD software.
The specific aim of the research was to hide a trojan inside the bootloader of an AVR chip itself. This would allow the trojan to remain present on something like a 3D printer even if the main firmware itself was reinstalled. The trojan would still be able to have an effect on the printer’s performance from its dastardly hiding place, but would be more difficult to notice and remove.
The target of the work was the ATmega328P, commonly used in 3D printers, in particular those using the Marlin firmware. For the full technical details, you can dive in and read the research paper for yourself. In basic terms, though, the modified bootloader was able to use the chip’s IVSEL register to allow bootloader execution after boot via interrupt. When an interrupt is called, execution passes to the trojan-infected bootloader’s special code, before then returning to the program’s own interrupt to avoid raising suspicion. The trojan can also execute after the program’s interrupt code too, increasing the flexibility of the attack. Continue reading “Trojans Can Lurk Inside AVR Bootloaders”→
If you’re among those of us with immediate plans for a PCB or parts order from China, watch out – Shenzhen just recently got put on a week-long lockdown. Factories, non-essential stores and public places are closed, and people are required to spend time at home – for a city that makes hardware thrive, this sounds like a harsh restriction. Work moves to remote where possible, but some PCB fabs and component warehouses might not be at our service for at least a week.
It might be puzzling to hear that the amount of cases resulting in closures is as low as 121, for a city of 12.6 million people. The zero-tolerance policy towards COVID has been highly effective for the city, with regular testing, adhered-to masking requirements and vaccinations – which is how we’ve been free to order any kinds of boards and components we needed throughout the past two years. In fact, 121 cases in one day is an unprecedented number for Shenzhen, and given their track record and swift reaction, it is reasonable to expect the case count dropping back to the regular (under 10 cases per day) levels soon.
Not all manufacturing facilities are located in Shenzhen, either. Despite what certain headlines might have you believe, supply chain shortages aren’t a certainty from here. A lot of the usual suspects like PCBWay and JLCPCB are merely reporting increased lead times as they reallocate resources, and while some projects are delayed for now, a lot of fabs you’d use continue operating with minor delays at most. SeeedStudio has its operations impacted more severely, and your Aliexpress orders might get shipped a bit later than usual – but don’t go around calling this a Chinese New Year v2 just yet. For those who want to keep a closer eye on the situation and numbers, the [Shenzhen Pages] Twitter account provides from-the-ground updates on the situation.
It was a cold autumn night in 1988. The people of Cambridge, Massachusetts lay asleep in their beds unaware of the future horror about to be unleashed from the labs of the nearby college. It was a virus, but not just any virus. This virus was a computer program whose only mission was to infect every machine it could come in contact with. Just a few deft keystrokes is all that separated law abiding citizens from the…over the top reporting in this throwback news reel posted by [Kahvowa].
To be fair, the concept of a computer virus certainly warranted a bit of explanation for folks in the era of Miami Vice. The only places where people would likely run into multiple computers all hooked together was a bank or a college campus. MIT was the campus in question for this news report as it served as ground zero for the Morris Worm virus.
Named after its creator, Robert Tappan Morris, the Morris Worm was one of the first programs to replicate itself via vulnerabilities in networked computer systems. Its author intended the program to be a benign method of pointing out holes, however, it ended up copying itself onto systems multiple times to the point of crashing. Removing the virus from an infected machine often took multiple days, and the total damage of the virus was estimated to be in the millions of dollars.
In an attempt to anonymize himself, Morris initially launched his worm program from a computer lab at MIT as he was studying at Cornell at the time. It didn’t work. Morris would go onto to be the first person to receive a felony conviction under the 1986 Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. After the appeals process, he received a sentence a community service and a fine. After college Morris co-founded the online web store software company Viaweb that Yahoo! would acquire in 1998 for 49 million dollars. Years later in an ironic twist, Morris would return to academia as a professor at MIT’s department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.
Despite the best efforts of scientists around the world, the current global pandemic continues onward. But even if you aren’t working on a new vaccine or trying to curb the virus with some other seemingly miraculous technology, there are a few other ways to help prevent the spread of the virus. By now we all know of ways to do that physically, but now thanks to [James Devine] and a team at CERN we can also model virus exposure directly on our own self-hosted Raspberry Pis.
The program, called the Covid-19 Airborne Risk Assessment (CARA), is able to take in a number of metrics about the size and shape of an area, the number of countermeasures already in place, and plenty of other information in order to provide a computer-generated model of the number of virus particles predicted as a function of time. It can run on a number of different Pi hardware although [James] recommends using the Pi 4 as the model does take up a significant amount of computer resources. Of course, this only generates statistical likelihoods of virus transmission but it does help get a more accurate understanding of specific situations.
For more information on how all of this works, the group at CERN also released a paper about their model. One of the goals of this project is that it is freely available and runs on relatively inexpensive hardware, so hopefully plenty of people around the world are able to easily run it to further develop understanding of how the virus spreads. For other ways of using your own computing power to help fight Covid, don’t forget about Folding@Home for using up all those extra CPU and GPU cycles.
Over the years, artists have been creating art depicting weapons of mass destruction, war and human conflict. But the weapons of war, and the theatres of operation are changing in the 21st century. The outcome of many future conflicts will surely depend on digital warriors, huddled over their computer screens, punching on their keyboards and maneuvering joysticks, or using devious methods to infect computers to disable or destroy infrastructure. How does an artist give physical form to an unseen, virtual digital weapon? That is the question which inspired [Mac Pierce] to create his latest Portrait of a Digital Weapon.
[Mac]’s art piece is a physical depiction of a virtual digital weapon, a nation-state cyber attack. When activated, this piece displays the full code of the Stuxnet virus, a worm that partially disabled Iran’s nuclear fuel production facility at Natanz around 2008. Continue reading “Portrait Of A Digital Weapon”→