Category Archives: Hacking for the People

Tech use for the people, helping take back control from the centralised corporate internet

Backslash – OTG and Protest kit set.

some time last autumn i found backslash.cc

backslash

As part of their Masters Thesis at NYU, Pedro Olivera and Xuedl Chen designed and built a series of components for a Protester’s kit.

  1. A Bandana to defend against facial recognition technologies
  2. An Off-grid Router
  3. a “Panic Button” to alert other users that an area is becoming dangerous/compromised
  4. a Drive to store crowd-loaded imagery/video whilst at the same time anonymising any meta-data
  5. a signal jammer to enable users to shoot video/take pictures with mobile devices without the risk of external compromisation by surveillance devices etc.
  6. a good old graffiti stencil to alert users that an area is possibly compromised by state surveillance devices

“the modern protester believes that connectivity is a basic human right”

just go to the site,  follow @backslashcc on twitter or tweet using the hashtag #backslash

sadly, there are no plans to commercially or otherwise mass produce this equipment, it’s inspiration for anyone with the maker skills to put it together.

Outernet, Lantern & Pillar

Outernet – Humanity’s Public Library

You don’t get a clearer manifesto than that, I guess.  Outernet is a planned system of satellite broadcasts of content, from books and news to audio & video, which will be received by purpose built kit (or DIY Raspberry Pi units) and then distributed via wi-fi access points.

Their website is here: https://www.outernet.is/en/

and the best line I read on it was

Outernet will eradicate information poverty and censorship

Which is as close to the spirit of the stuff I’ve been posting here as you can get, I think.

At this point, more or less the only way to tap into the output is with a DIY receiver, which can be built using a Raspberry Pi, a 60cm dish, an LNB and an irritatingly expensive USB Satellite TV receiver.  On the face of it, it looks like they’re broadcasting using a TV channel through two satellites, currently only covering North America an Europe (East and West).

However, the plan on Indiegogo (https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/lantern-one-device-free-data-from-space-forever) is to produce mini solar powered receivers which have built in Wi-Fi Access Points, and eventually to supplement these with a larger unit called Pillar

It does sound ambitious, with their indiegogo project suggesting that with $10m they can effectively launch their own network of satellites broadcasting the Outernet feed.  Best of luck to them though, I think 🙂

The Outernet website includes the entire archive as it stands which is to be broadcast, lists of the content included, and a suggestion box for content to be added.

They can also be found on

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/OuternetForAll

Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC-sD3af_6AqJnGgvUAIfUHA

Twitter: https://twitter.com/outernetforall

and Google+: https://plus.google.com/+OuternetIs/posts

I believe this is a project worth following, and I do hope it goes the distance, the Indiegogo project has at least met its $200,000 target.

 

ArkOS – self hosting freedom box system

ArkOS is a project designed for “embedded computers”, and was originally put together to run on the Raspberry Pi.

As I’ve already indicated, I like the Pi, and I love how it could fit into the decentralisation lark I keep waffling on about, mainly due to price, ease of use and low power requirements.

Well, if you want a website you can run from your own home broadband network, which could have the capability of running wordpress, a forum, a chat page, or hosting your own email server, then ArkOS may be, in the years to come, the solution.

In this post, I’ll download ArkOS, install the image to my Pi, and see what it can do.  by the end of this post, there may be a link to a DynDNS url where I’ll have the ArkOS instance hosted.

The makers are very keen to point out that ArkOS is still in dev.  at this time, only version 0.3 is available, but there are plenty of people downloading  and installing it, and feeding back.

A standard SD Card image can be downloaded from the ArkOS website. (Generally, because the Pi boots from SD Card, not a hard disk, any OS installation for it begins with taking a .img image file, and loading it onto an SD card.  In this particular instance, I’m using a 32GB Sandisk Micro SD card I got cheap on ebay, and loading it onto a new Raspberry Pi model B.

Once imaged, install the card, and power up the Pi connected via the ethernet port to your router. From that point on, it’s simply a question of browsing to the right address now announced on your own home network, and going through a step by step process to get everything up and running.

So, what do I get?

The driver for all of this is a system called “Genesis”, which gives the owner an interface to install plugins to the main system.

Genesis plugins are components which normally on a Linux box would be command line installs, and each component would need to be set up to interlink.  for example, if I wanted to run a WordPress website, I’d need to install a Database package, create a database for WordPress to live in, and then configure wordpress to point at said database.

With Genesis (which is currently at version 0.6) you simply click on an icon to install wordpress, and automagically install a database server to support it, and then do the same again to setup a WordPress instance.

hence why http://wordpress.lojacked.dyndns.org is now available.

(using a dynamic DNS service like DynDNS is pretty much the only way to enable accessing toys on your home network from outside.  read your router documentation to understand how port forwarding works)

Genesis uses an “App Store” to download software packages from.  and to be honest, they do cover everything that a “freedom box” needs.  These include WordPress (obviously), a collaborative notes system, OwnCloud, chat, even a version of mumble which you could use to host VoIP conferencing.  There is a CalDAV compatible Calendar/Contacts server called Radicale which is compatible with iOS, so I now have a self hosted Calendar server for my iPhone which is independent of the iOS cloud.

So, all told, you can store your files there, your contacts and calendar, and run a WordPress blog, all from your own home network, instead of the various centralised databases and Clouds.

+1 for ArkOS I think.


Total time for download, installation and basic setup of 1 ArkOS server running on Raspberry Pi, 1 WordPress Blog, and 1 Calendar Server, about 1 hour or so, allowing for me fiddling with stuff, and about 10 minutes arsing about with my home router.

Cost: $0, apart from my annual subscription to DynDNS, which is about $25.

ArkOS has also been ported to work on some varieties of the Beaglebone Black, Cubieboard and ODroid embedded computers.

Raspberry Pi: Why I think it’s important.

Everyone should have heard of the Raspberry Pi by now. a cheap bareboard computer the size of a packet of fags, which is more than capable of running a variety of Linux ports, and other OSs besides.

The history is, the guys wanted a computer that was to “inspire children”.  An easy to produce, easy to get up and running small footprint computer to use in the classroom.

What we got, was a lot more than that, in my opinion.  What I think we got was a computer cheap enough to bring us towards more ubiquitous computing, that allows for rapid, low powered deployment, and has the facility to connect to electronics in a way not as convenient before now.

Continue reading Raspberry Pi: Why I think it’s important.

Ad-Hoc Mobile Networks – temporary pop-up internet

So, everyone should know what a Mesh network is right?

A network made up of a variety of nodes, which in the even of a node going down, reroutes network traffic using the remaining nodes. (Probably oversimplifying as usual, but you get the idea?)

I remember learning about Mesh networks back in the 90s when I was at College.  It’s not a new thing by any means, but hopefully we’ll see more mainstream use of the term this decade.  At least I hope so, because they’ve got a potential to change things such as how we protest, and how we communicate on an urban level.

In fact, forget it, I’m already too late, Apple have decided as of IOS 7, to adopt it.

see : What is mesh networking, and why Apple’s adoption in iOS 7 could change the world on extremetech.com

But, given it’s a Mesh network running on the hardware of a big company, let’s skip that…. although no doubt, some Black hatters may be able to make it work for us, and make sure it’s not all recorded in the IOS black box.

As usual, Wikipedia has a nice summary for us of what a wireless Mesh looks like.

Wireless mesh network diagram.jpg
Wireless mesh network diagram” by David Johnson, Karel Matthee, Dare Sokoya, Lawrence Mboweni, Ajay Makan, and Henk Kotze (Wireless Africa, Meraka Institute, South Africa) – Building a Rural Wireless Mesh Network: A do-it-yourself guide to planning and building a Freifunk based mesh network. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.

The point is, a Wireless, Ad-hoc Mesh network is an internet capable network that may or may not be connected to the wider internet, that can span (potentially) any open or urban space, outside of the control of any corporate or governmental entity.  “Wow, why isn’t everyone doing it then?” you might ask.  pretty simple really, you need the hardware and technical knowledge to do so.  from the diagram above, you may recognise some proprietary LinkSys routers, but in the article above (which was, bear in mind, written in 2007) the LinkSys firmware was hacked, as it was based on OpenWRT (which I’ll articlise on it’s own at some point). That and, at the end of it, you’ll be connected back to the internet.  Certainly in urban areas you have to work with the  concept that free connection to the internet would have every man and his dog downloading cat pictures in 30 seconds.  It’s an infrastructure, but one that would be useful within specific contexts.

But it’s still a technical thing.  you need to know a fair bit to get one up and running, and be comfortable with some of the hacks involved.

That, hopefully may not remain the case for as long.

Check out a similar Wikipedia article, and this is much more interesting: Mobile ad hoc network.  And i’d like to emphasise the following extract

  • Military / Tatical MANETs are used by military units with emphasis on security, range, and integration with existing systems.

Now this is where ad-hoc Mesh networking really starts to mean something other than just helping a village in Africa get on the Net (and makes me interested in it).

(Who remembers “One Laptop Per Child“? – the basic premise of the OLPC project is that it would use mobile ad-hoc to join networks of OLPC machines to one or few internet gateways  for the purpose of bringing the internet to locations with no fixed gateway or infrastructure)

The context for the above extract, is within the Digital Battlefield, which makes the whole C5i (Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Combat systems and Intelligence) work.

If you check out this memo/white paper there’s another extract I’d like to mention:

mesh-based mobile networks can be operated as robust,inexpensive alternatives or enhancements to cell-based mobile network infrastructures

One of the themes I’ll be continuing to pursue, is that any technology which means we get some privacy, or the opportunity to get away from mainstream systems and networks is a Good Thing ™.  Hopefully with the posts I make in the future, there will some sense appear, out of the madness. The point of the last extract is to point out that these networks are power.  While they may never match the breadth of national Cellular networks, when applied to smaller scale environments, they could provide much needed freedom from said national systems.

Imagine Tahrir Square, Cairo, with the support of informational networking that does not rely on the cellular network internet, and a communication system that did not rely on facebook, or twitter, which could be (and were) blacked out by the then Egyptian government.

Imagine an Occupy event, where live streaming of sousveillance devices is automatically broadcast to multiple recording facilities (also hosted on the mobile ad-hoc), all running on a network which is not reliant on a platform which is controlled by, or legislatively at the whim of, government, police or military.

And if we’re feeling nice about the people in power (God forbid), imagine a disaster area, such as New Orleans after the flooding, or Malaysia, or pretty much any are where the infrastructural communications hardware has been knocked out, having at least some level of electronic communications which could be supplemented by anything that can hook into wi-fi, such as smartphones and so on. (oversimplifying again, but the idea’s there).

Project Byzantium is what made me much more interesting the potential of this idea, and even more so when I found ByzPi which is a port to run on the Raspberry Pi. (I really will have to publish my skit on the Pi sooner rather than later!)  It’s a Linux based Mesh networking package which allows you to turn any Linux based kit into Mesh nodes, and has some pre-built communications services available such as a Twitter analog, and IRC.

I’ll try and tie this in with my other decentralisation posts as well to see what (if anything) could come out of all these disparate technologies.

Mobile web server – the PirateBox

OK, so what’s this?

TP-Link MR3040
TP-Link MR3040

On the face of it, a TP-Link MR3040 3/4G router.  These are cheap mini routers which are designed to take a standard USB broadband dongle, wired up to your cellular provider, and allow more than just 1 device to utilise them.  This particular model has a rechargeable battery built in, giving it a few hours of use without being hooked up using standard mini-usb.

However, this device utilises Open-WRT, a flavour of Linux embedded into a variety of devices.  I first came across Open-WRT hacking about 6-7 years ago, when a colleague at the time told me how he’d hacked a little network print-server and re-purposed it as a web server by hacking the Open-WRT he had installed.  “Neat” I thought, not realising the potential at the time.  More recently I picked up a cheap PogoPlug to use as a personal home-based cloud device, and learnt that similarly, it can be hacked and re-purposed.

So, with my limited knowledge of Linux, and barely competent command line usage, I trolled over to http://piratebox.cc/ and saw what devices would be worth a try.

The piratebox is not just a standalone webserver, it also acts as an access point, so you don’t need a traditional wifi router attached using normal networking, to a server box.  The piratebox wraps the 2 together.

There are 4 primary versions of Piratebox; one for the Raspberry Pi (the Pi(rate) box), one for laptops (those preferably running Debian Linux), one for Android (which by the sounds of things is not particularly stable, and suffers from the same problem as all android software, and that’s device specificity), and one for OpenWRT.  the OpenWRT version supports the TP-Link MR3020 and MR3040 routers.

The MR3020 requires a power source running across mini-usb to run, and there are examples on the Piratebox site of these running from USB powerpacks, which are becoming more popular as people want to charge their smartphones on the run.  I preferred the look and feel of the MR3040 because it’s a little sleeker, and has it’s own rechargeable battery, which would make it slightly more appropriate for running while on the move.

nicked from http://piratebox.cc/photos
nicked from http://piratebox.cc/photos

I do like this picture though of an MR3020 duct-taped to a skateboard.  Nice.

TP-Link MR3040 Piratebox
TP-Link MR3040 Piratebox

This is a dismantled MR3040 piratebox.  All that’s actually required apart from the router itself and a USB memory stick for the Piratebox software and storage, is any windows or linux machine which can:

1. drop the installer onto the USB stick (and in the pic is  a SanDisk Cruzer Fit 32GB, which I got simply because it keeps the overall size of the unit down to the minimum) and
2. connect via a network cable to the MR3040 prior to setting it running, to log in via SSH and kick start some services (download PuTTY for that).

Even with my rudimentary linux command line knowledge, I had it up and running within about 15 minutes, and most of that was waiting for the installer to crank up.

So what do you get?

Well, out of the box (ahem), you get a simple fileserver, (which is more than happy to run a mini DLNA server, which means any videos you stick on it will play direct onto smartphones with no effort), a chat server, and a functional forum system.  The bonus is, because the guys who put it together thought about it, it also runs a responsive design, so it comfortably runs on smartphones, tablets and laptops.  (I do admit to it being a little flaky format-wise though on my ipad 2).  In the spirit of its purpose, there is no wireless security on it, you just get redirected to the homepage when you connect and attempt to open any web page.  Again, this was somewhat flaky on my ipad 2, but fine on my iphone.

It’s an effective and covert tool for use in urban/public spaces to transfer files, communicate using the chat page, and leave messages.   Off the top of my head, I can imagine using it at festivals, during protest gatherings, or as a dead drop in Malls, City Centres, community areas, and so on.  the only limitation is the power supply, and the size of the USB stick installed into it.  (It looks like a USB/SSD affair might be too much of a power draw, so normal sticks would apply).  I’ll be trying it out with a 20000mah USB power pack to see what the up-time is like, although that’ll be under almost zero load.

The MR3020 comes out about 20 quid on ebay, but bear in mind it does need a power source to go with it.  the MR3040 varies wildly on ebay surprisingly, I got lucky and paid only around £15 for mine, but they get up to £40 in general.  I used an aging Samsung NC10 netbook on windows XP to do the setup, and the TP-Link comes with a short ethernet cable anyway.

My next trick will be to install on Raspberry Pi, with one of the power rigs I’ve sourced for it, including a Solar panel set up.

This is only the first of several decentralisation toys I’ll be looking at in the coming posts.  While it’s strictly a temporary tool, it’s still a fine weapon in your armoury.