Category Archives: Hardware

The Internet of Privacy-Infringing Things?

Let’s talk a little bit about the rapid proliferation of the so-called Internet of Things (IoT). The Internet of Things is a catch-all term for all sorts of embedded devices that are hooked up to the internet in order to make them “smarter,” able to react to certain circumstances, automate things etcetera. This can include many devices, such as thermostats, autonomous cars, etc. There’s a wide variety of possibilities, and some of them, like smart thermostats are already on the market, with autonomous cars following closely behind.

According to the manufacturers who are peddling this technology, the purpose of hooking these devices up to the internet is to be able to react better and provide more services that were previously impossible to execute. An example would be a thermostat that recognises when you are home, and subsequently raises the temperature of the house. There are also scenarios possible of linking various IoT devices together, like using your autonomous car to recognise when it is (close to) home and then letting the thermostat automatically increase the temperature, for instance.

There are myriad problems with this technology in its current form. Some of the most basic ones in my view are privacy and security considerations. In the case of cars, Ford knows exactly where you are at all times and knows when you are breaking the speed limit by using the highly-accurate GPS that’s built into modern Ford cars. This technology is already active, and if you drive one of these cars, this information (your whereabouts at all times, and certain metrics about the car, like the current speed, mileage, etc.) are stored and sent to Ford’s servers. Many people don’t realise this, but it was confirmed by Ford’s Global VP of Marketing and Sales, Jim Farley at a CES trade show in Las Vegas at the beginning of this year. Farley later retracted his statements after the public outrage, claiming that he left the wrong impression and that Ford does not track the locations of their cars without the owners’ consent.

Google’s $3.2 billion acquisition

google-nest-acquisition-1090406-TwoByOneNest Labs, Inc. used to be a separate company making thermostats and smoke detectors, until Google bought it for a whopping $3.2 billion dollars. The Nest thermostat is a programmable thermostat that has a little artificial intelligence inside of it that enables it to learn what temperatures you like, turns the temperature up when you’re at home and turns it down when you’re away. It can be controlled via WiFi from anywhere in the world via a web interface. Users can log in to their accounts to change temperature, schedules, and see energy usage.

Why did Google pay such an extraordinary large amount for a thermostat company? I think it will be the next battleground for Google to gather more data, the Internet of Things. Things like home automation and cars are markets that Google has recently stepped into. Technologies like Nest and Google’s driver-less car are generating massive amounts of data about users’ whereabouts and things like sleep/wake cycles, patterns of travel and usage of energy, for instance. And this is just for the two technologies that I have chosen to focus my attention on for this article. There are lots of different IoT devices out there, that eventually will all be connected somehow. Via the internet.

Privacy Concerns

One is left to wonder what is happening with all this data? Where is it stored, who has access to it, and most important of all: why is it collected in the first place? In most cases this collecting of data isn’t even necessary. In the case of Ford, we have to rely on Farley’s say-so that they are the only ones that have access to this data. And of course Google and every other company out there has the same defence. I don’t believe that for one second.

The data is being collected to support a business model that we see often in the tech industry, where profiles and sensitive data about the users of a service are valuable and either used to better target ads or directly sold on to other companies. There seems to be this conception that the modern internet user is used to not paying for services online, and this has caused many companies to implement the default ads-based and data and profiling-based business model. However, other business models, like the Humble Bundle in the gaming industry for instance, or online crowd-funding campaigns on Kickstarter or Indiegogo have shown that the internet user is perfectly willing to spend a little money or give a little donation if it’s a service or device that they care about. The problem with the default ads-based business model discussed above is that it leaves the users’ data to be vulnerable to exposure to third parties and others that have no business knowing it, and also causes companies to collect too much information about their users by default. It’s like there is some kind of recipe out there called “How to start a Silicon Valley start-up,” that has profiling and tracking of users and basically not caring about the users’ privacy as its central tenet. It doesn’t have to be this way.

Currently, a lot of this technology is developed and then brought to market without any consideration whatsoever about privacy of the customer or security and integrity of the data. Central questions that in my opinion should be answered immediately and during the initial design process of any technology impacting on privacy are left unanswered. First, if and what data should we collect? How easy is it to access this data? I’m sure it would be conceivable that unauthorized people would also be able to quite easily gain access to this data. What if it falls into the wrong hands? A smart thermostat like Google Nest is able to know when you’re home and knows all about your sleep/wake cycle. This is information that could be of interest to burglars, for instance. What if someone accesses your car’s firmware and changes it? What happens when driver-less cars mix with the regular cars on the road, controlled by people? This could lead to accidents.


And what to think of all those “convenient” dashboards and other web-based interfaces that are enabled and exposed to the world on all those “smart” IoT devices? I suspect that there will be a lot of security vulnerabilities to be found in that software. It’s all closed-source and not exposed to external code review. The budgets for the software development probably aren’t large enough to accommodate looking at the security and privacy implications of the software and implementing proper safeguards to protect users’ data. This is a recipe for disaster. Only when using free and open source software can proper code-review be implemented and code inspected for back-doors and other unwanted behaviour. And it generally leads to better quality software, since more people are able to see the code and have the incentives to fix bugs, etc. in an open and welcoming community.

Do we really want to live in a world where we can’t have privacy any more, where your whereabouts are at all times stored and analysed by god-knows who, and all technology is hooked up to each other, without privacy and security considerations? Look, I like technology. But I like technology to be open, so that smart people can look at the insides and determine whether what the tech is doing is really what it says on the tin, with no nasty side-effects. So that the community of users can expand upon the technology. It is about respecting the users’ freedom and rights, that’s what counts. Not enslaving them to closed-source technology that is controlled by commercial parties.

Killing Counterfeit Chips: Parallels with DRM

Last week, The Scottish chip manufacturer FTDI pushed out an update to their Windows driver that deliberately killed counterfeit FT232 chips. The FTDI FT232 is a very popular chip, found in thousands of different electronic appliances, from Arduinos to consumer electronics. The FT232 converts USB to serial port, which is very useful, and this chip probably is the most cloned chip on the planet.

Of course, not supporting counterfeit chips is any chip manufacturer’s right, since they cannot guarantee that their products work when used in conjunction with counterfeit hardware, and because it is a strain on customer support to provide support for devices not made by the company. This case however, is slightly different in that the update contains code that is deliberately written to (soft)brick all counterfeit versions of the FT232. By doing this, FTDI was deliberately destroying other people’s equipment.

One could simply say: don’t use counterfeit chips, but in many cases you simply don’t know that some consumer electronic device you use contains a counterfeit FT232. Deliberately destroying other people’s equipment is a bad move, especially since FTDI doesn’t know what device that fake chip is used in. It could for instance be a medical device, on which flawless operation people’s lives depend.

Hard to tell the difference

FTDI Real vs FakeIn the case of FTDI, one cannot easily tell an original chip from a counterfeit one, only by actually closely looking at the silicon are the differences between a real or a fake chip revealed. In the image above, the left one is a genuine FTDI FT232 chip; the right one is counterfeit. Can you tell the difference?

Even though they look very similar on the surface, the inner workings differ between the original chips and counterfeit ones. The driver update written by FTDI exploits these differences to create a driver that works as expected on original devices, but for counterfeit chips reprograms the USB PID to 0, which is a technical trick that Windows, OS X and GNU/Linux don’t like.

Parallels with Digital Rights Management (DRM)

Defective by Design I see some parallels with software DRM, which is aptly named Digital Restrictions Management by the Free Software Foundation. Because that is what it is. It isn’t about protecting rights of copyright holders, but restricting what people have always done since the early beginnings of humanity.

We copy. We get inspired by, modify and build upon other work, standing on the shoulders of the giants that came before us. That’s in our nature. Children copy and modify, which is  great for their creativity, artists copy and modify culture to make new culture, authors read books and articles and use the ideas and insights they gain to write new books and articles,  providing new insights which brings humanity as a whole forward. Musicians build upon foundations of others to make new music. Some, like the mashup-artists, even outright copy other people’s music and use them in their compositions as-is, making fresh and new compositions out of it. Copying and modifying is essential for human culture to thrive and survive and adapt.

According to the FSF definition, DRM is the practice to use technological restrictions to control what users can do with digital media, software, et cetera. Programs that prevent you from sharing songs, copying, reading ebooks on more than one device, etcetera, are forms of DRM. DRM is defective by design, as it damages the product you bought and has only one purpose: prevent what would be possible to do with the product or software had there not been a form of DRM imposed on you.

DRM serves no other purpose but to restrict possibilities in the interest of making you dependent on the publisher, creator or distributor (vendor lock-in), who, confronted with a rapidly changing market, chooses not to innovate and think of new business models and new ways of making money, and instead try to impose restrictions on you in an effort to cling on to outdated business models.

In the case of DRM, technical measures are put in place to prevent users from using software and media in a certain way. In the case of FTDI, technical measures are put in place to prevent users from using their own, legally-purchased hardware, effectively crippling it. One often does not know whether the FT232 chip that is embedded in a device is genuine or counterfeit, as you can see in the image near the top of this article, the differences are very tiny and hard to spot on the surface. FTDI wanted to protect their intellectual property, but doing so by sneakily exploiting differences between real and counterfeit chips and thereby deliberately damaging people’s equipment is not the way to go.

Luckily, a USB-to-serial-UART chip is easily replaced, but one is left to wonder what happens when other chip manufacturers, making chips that are not so easily replaced, start pulling tricks like these?