Archive for February, 2014

How many movies hacking scenes can you recall where hackers are practically playing a videogame? And I’m not just talking “Disclosure” here, which is not even real scifi. How uncool was that Jeff Goldblum manages to enter the invaders system in the proverbial nick of time and he makes all ships crash? The virus thing made way more sense in War of the Worlds and it was written more than 100 years ago. I can admit that cylons broke into the 12 colonies security (BSG) because, let’s admit it, they basically wrote the code themselves and left a trapdoor, but it is amazing how writers manage to put your traditional geeky kid in front of a military computer and have him break into a million dollars system in less than five minutes. With pretty screens, too! Did these guys never watch Wargames when they were kids?

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The worst hacking scene I’ve seen lately was in Skyfall. Q believes himself so smart, yet he stupidly plugs a terrorist’s laptop into the MI6 network. Really! Because it would have been the first time he’s seen a virus, right? Not only that, somehow James Bond incidentally finds the keyword to decrypt the pretty, pretty lightshow that seems to be Silva’s most secret code flying around on screen and he does not even doubt it could be a trap? Please, bring back the old Q. Or, at least, Chloe from 24.

The worst part of the movie is that they throw around one-million-pound words like obfuscated code, or reverse engineering. And they probably just read the definition in the Wikipedia. The first like, that’s it.

Let’s go for the three major hacking screw ups that even us not-hackers can easily spot.

– Anyone who’s ever seen someone tampering with systems knows that hackers do not not fancy interfaces. They go for consoles, command lines and the such. Why would anyone lose their time to create a pretty visualization of low level data that eventually turns into a subway map of London(!)? I get that Bardem looks pretty crazy, but, really … If one is into pretty visualization of complex data, I’d recommend Visual Complexity. Even WIFI hacking, which is supposed to be open to general use, typically looks like this:

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– The code changes itself to prevent reverse engineering? Right, Malware does exactly does, but in order to avoid the problem, the typical approach to cope with that kind of code is to work from a virtual machine that can return the hosting computer to the point before the change. Think of it as a kind of Mac Time Machine or Windows Restore copy: if you screw with your system, you can always return to its last recorded state, right?.

– Finally, the obfuscated code thing also rings a bell, but not quite. Obfuscated code is a program written as complicated as possible on purpose, so that any potential reader won’t understand the source code. It is indeed used to deter reverse engineering, and also for recreational purposes, like writing tiny programs that do flashy things like writing poems, playing chess, or creating labyrinths like the one below. The main requirement is that understanding the code by reading it should be really hard, although sometimes the number of lines is heavily limited too.

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On a non-recreational note, viruses also operate on obfuscated code often. This code is usually a mix of weird variable names, the most cryptic addressing modes and instructions and the use of a set of programs called packers and obfuscators. However, there are also programs to de-obfuscate code, like Beautifier. Although that might be too pedestrian for the new Q.

My advice: if you are going to write about hacking, get familiar with the field first. Or try nMap, it’s free.

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Ever wanted to grow your own TARDIS?

Breeding electronics is not a new idea in science fiction. Not only the Doctor’s most faithful companion is indeed a mix of organic and non-organic material that can be grown out of a piece of itself. Moya, in Farscape, is also a bio-mechanoid, in this case born from another Leviathan. And so are cylon raiders, from Galactica, the Shadows’ and Vorlons’ ships and the White Stars from Babylon 5. In Hyperion (1989), Dan Simmons also describes enormous tree-ships that are grown to move between the stars. And, actually, the trees in Cameron’s Avatar work like an enormous interconnected circuit.

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It’s no surprise, then, that people have been trying to grow, at least partially, their own circuits using bio-stuff. For example, Jean-Baptiste Labrune of Alcatel-Lucent Bell Labs came with the idea of Orgatronics, that combine transducers and microcontrollers with organic materials, mostly wood,

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Why would these circuits be interesting? First of all, you don’t build them, you grow them. They would be also way easier to recycle. Plus, according to their creators, they could use alternative power sources. Of course, we’ve got the sun, but let’s not forget that plants present potential differences that may provide some feeding to low power consumption electronics. For example, see how Texas MSP 430 microcontroller can be fed (up to a point) with almost any citric.

There have also been projects to feed conventional circuitry with, e.g. the potential difference created by tree root acidification, so, for example, trees could sense heat and trigger alarms in case of wildfires. However, electronics were conventional, even though they used the tree for power. It would be way better if the trees could grow just so, right?

This is, for example, the work of Andrew Adamatzky at the University of the West of England in Bristol. Based on studies about the electrical impedance of cucumbers and olive trees, he has focused on lettuce seedlings to create some sort of organic wire. The problem with organic stuff is that, unlike metals, it is typically not a good conductor for electricity. Adamatzky placed the seedlings across a 10 mm gap in a circuit, passed 1 uA current through it and measured impedance and potential over 10 minutes. Turns out his stuff behave like a 2.76 MOhms resistor, way higher than metals, but still well under the resistance of a body. He plans to use the seedlings to connect biosystems with silicon devices. The main challenge Adamatzky is facing is how to control the growth of the seedlings, which is in no way well structured. However, given that the resistance of materials change with factors like, for example, temperature, these thingies could be used to create fully organic sensors.

Still a long way to go, but moving in the right direction.

Source (partially): MIT Technology Review