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Hackaday Links: November 14, 2021


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If you’re an infrastructure dweeb, it’s hard to drive past an electrical substation and not appreciate the engineering involved in building something like that. A moment’s thought will also make it hard to miss just how vulnerable a substation is to attack, especially those located way out in the hinterlands. And now we’re learning that late year, someone in Pennsylvania noticed this vulnerability and acted on it by attacking a substation with a commercial drone. Rather than trying to fly explosives over the substation fence, the attacker instead chose to dangle a copper wire tether under the drone, in an attempt to cause a short circuit. The attempt apparently failed when the drone crashed before contacting any conductors, and the attacker appears to have been ignorant of the extensive protective gear employed at substations that likely would have made a successful attack only a temporary outage. But it still points to the vulnerability of the grid to even low-skill, low-cost attacks.

We’ve probably all had the experience of using someone’s janky app and thinking, “Pfft! I could write something better than this!” That’s what a bunch of parents of school-age kids in Sweden thought, and they went ahead and did exactly that. Unfortunately, it didn’t turn out quite the way they expected. The problem app was called Skolplattform, which was supposed to make it easy for Stockholm’s parents to keep track of their kids’ progress at school. The app, which cost 1 billion Swedish Krona to develop, is by all accounts a disaster. But some frustrated parents managed to reverse engineer the API and build a new, better one on top of it. This resulted in Öppna Skolplattformen, an open-source app that actually works. Not to be upstaged, the city of Stockholm accused the parents of cyber crimes and data breaches. They also engaged the parents in an “API war”, constantly changing their system to nerf the new app and forcing the parents to rewrite it. In the end, the parents won, with Stockholm changing its position after a police report found that all data being accessed were voluntarily made public by the city. But it’s still a cautionary tale about the dangers of one-upping The Man.

Sam Battles is in a bit of a moral bind, and it’s something that others in our community may run into. Sam is perhaps better known as “Look Mum, No Computer” on YouTube, and as the proprietor of the “This Museum Is (Not) Obsolete” showcase of retro technology in England. He’s also an avid builder of analog synthesizers, including a world-record synth with a thousand oscillators called the “Megadrone.” He’d like to tackle another build to try to break his own records, but in a time of fragile supply chains and other woes too numerous to mention, doing so would likely require the world’s entire supply of some components. Hence the dilemma: do any of us as hobbyists have a moral obligation to tread lightly when it comes to component selection? It’s an interesting question, and one that’s sure to engender strong opinions, which of course we encourage you to share in the comments section. Please just try to keep it civil.

Remember wardriving? If you were around in the early days of the 802.11 standard, you’ll probably recall how wardriving was a popular way to find open-access WiFi hotspots. While today we call using other people’s computers “The Cloud,” back then it was often the only way to get a connection. You’d think that wardriving would have been killed off by the pervasive connectivity of cell phone networks, but that’s hardly the case, at least for security research purposes. A security researcher built a warwalking rig into a backpack and toured neighborhoods in Tel Aviv, and discovered that 44% of people used their cell phone number as their WiFi password. He did this by collecting 5,000 password hashes and using a GPU cracking tool called hashcat to look for passwords matching the Israeli phone number schema, of which there were 2,200. A further comparison of the non-cell-number hashes against the rockyou.txt list of common passwords led to another 900 passwords. So perhaps you should reconsider your approach if you’re using a password like these.

And finally, a little trip down computer memory lane for any Microsoft employees who were onboarded in the early 1990s. Chances are good that they needed to endure this 1994 orientation film that covers the history of Microsoft and the glories of working in Redmond in the pre-Windows 95 days. Aside from the usual snark that attends glimpses of haircuts and fashions back in the olden times, the film is an interesting glimpse into where Microsoft saw itself in the developing computer culture. There are some dubious parts, like claiming — perhaps inadvertently — that Bill Gates and Paul Allen invented languages like Basic, Fortran, and Cobol. But it’s still pretty cool to look at what things were like at Microsoft before it became the behemoth it is today.

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