11 Aug 2017
HackerBoxes is a monthly subscription service for hardware hackers and makers.
I hadn’t heard of it until I was researching DEF CON 25 badges, for which they
had a box, at which point I was amazed I had missed it. They were handing out
coupons at DEF CON and BSidesLV for 10% off your first box, so I decided to give
it a try.
First thing I noticed upon opening the box was that there’s no fanfare in the
packaging or design of the shipping. You get a plain white box shipped USPS
with all of the contents just inside. I can’t decide if I’m happy they’re not
wasting material on extra packaging, or disappointed they didn’t do more to make
it feel exciting. If you look at their website, they show all the past boxes
with a black “Hacker Boxes” branded box, so I don’t know if this is a change, or
the pictures on the website are misleading, or the influx of new members from
hacker summer camp has resulted in a box shortage.
I unpacked the box quickly to find the following:
- Arduino Nano Clone
- Jumper Wires
- Small breadboard
- MicroSD Card (16 GB)
- USB MicroSD Reader
- MicroSD Breakout Board
- u-blox NEO 6M GPS module
- Magnetometer breakout
- PCB Ruler
- MicroUSB Cable
- Hackerboxes Sticker
- Pinout card with reminder of instructions (aka h4x0r sk00l)
If you’ve been trying to do the math in your head, I’ll save you the trouble.
In quantity 1, these parts can be had from AliExpress for about $30. If you’re
feeling impatient, you can do it on Amazon for about $50. Of course, the value
of the parts alone isn’t the whole story: this is a curated set of components
that builds a project, and the directions they provide on getting started are
part of the product. (I just know everyone wanted to know the cash value.)
Compared to some of their historical boxes, I’m a little underwhelmed. Many of
their boxes look like something where I could do many things with the kit or
teach hardware concepts: for example, “0018: Circuit Circus” is clearly an effort to
teach analog circuits. “0015 - Connect Everything” lets you connect everything
to WiFi via the ESP32. Even when not multi-purpose, previous kits have included
reusable tools like a USB borescope or a Utili-Key. Many seem to have an
exclusive “fun” item, like a patch or keychain, in addition to the obligatory
In contrast, the “Hacker Tracker” box feels like a unitasker: receive
GPS/magnetometer readings and log them to a MicroSD card. Furthermore, there’s
not much hardware education involved: all of the components connect directly via
jumper wires to the provided Arduino Nano clone, so other than “connect the
right wire”, there’s no electronics skillset to speak of. On the software side,
while there are steps along the way showing how each component is used, a
fully-functional Arduino sketch is provided, so you don’t have to know any
programming to get a functional GPS logger.
Overall, I feel like this kit is essentially “paint-by-numbers”, which can
either be great or disappointing. If you’re introducing a teenager to
electronics and programming, a “paint-by-numbers” approach is probably a great
start. Likewise, if this is your first foray into electronics or Arduino, you
should have no trouble following along. On the other hand, if you’re more
experienced and just looking for inspiration of endless possibilities, I feel
like this kit has fallen short.
There’s one other gripe I have with this kit: there are headers on the Arduino
Nano clone and the MicroSD breakout, but the headers are not soldered on the
accelerometer or GPS module. At least if you’re going to make a simple kit,
make it so I don’t have to clean off the soldering station, okay?
So, am I keeping my subscription? For the moment, yes, at least for another
month. Like I said, I’ve been impressed by past kits, so this might just be an
off month for what I’m looking for. I don’t think this kit is bad, and I’m not
disappointed, just not as excited as I’d hoped to be. I might have to give
Adabox a try though.
As for the subscription service itself: it looks like their web interface makes
it easy to skip a month (maybe you’re travelling and won’t have time?) or cancel
entirely. I’m not advocating cancelling, but I absolutely hate when
subscription services make you contact customer service to cancel (just so they
can try to talk you into staying longer, like AOL back in the 90s). The site
has a nice clean feel and works well.
If anyone from HackerBoxes is reading this, I’ll consolidate my suggestions to
you in a few points:
- Hook us up with patches & more stickers! Especially a sticker that won’t take
1/4 of a laptop. (I love the sticker from #0015 and the patch from #0018.)
- Don’t have the only soldering be two tiny header strips. Getting out the
soldering iron just to do a couple of SPI connections is a bit of a drag.
Either do a PCB like #0019, #0020, etc., or provide modules with headers in
place. (If it wasn’t for the soldering, you could take this kit on vacation
and play with just the kit and a laptop!)
- Instructables with more information on why you’re doing what you’re doing
would be nice. Mentioning that there’s a level shifter on the MicroSD
breakout because MicroSD cards run at 3.3V, and not the 5V from an Arduino
Nano, for example.
- Including a part that requires a warning about you (the experts) having had a
lot of problems with it in an introductory kit seems like a poor choice. A
customer with flaky behavior won’t know if it’s their setup, their code, or
Overall, I’m excited to see so much going into STEM education and the maker
movement, and I’m happy that it’s still growing. I want to thank HackerBoxes
for being a part of that and wish them success even if I don’t turn out to be
their ideal demographic.
07 Aug 2017
In addition to taking stock of how things went at Hacker Summer Camp, I think
it’s important to examine the lessons learned from the event. Some of these
lessons will be introspective and reflect on myself and my career, but I think
it’s important to share these to encourage others to also reflect on what they
want and where they’re going.
It’s still incredibly important to me to be doing hands-on technical work.
I do a lot of other things, and they may have significant impact, but I can’t
imagine taking a purely leadership/organizational role. I wouldn’t be happy,
and unhappy people are not productive people. Finding vulnerabilities, doing
technical research, building tools, are all areas that make me excited to be in
this field and to continue to be in this field.
I saw so many highly-technical projects presented and demoed, and these were all
the ones that made me excited to still be in this field. The IoT village, in
particular, showed a rapidly-evolving highly technical area of security with
many challenges left to be solved:
- How do you configure devices that lack a user interface?
- How do you update devices that users expect to run 24/7?
- How do you build security into a device that users expect to be dirt cheap?
- What are the tradeoffs between Bluetooth, WiFi, 802.15.4, and other radio
Between these questions and my love of playing with hardware (my CS
concentration was in embedded systems), it’s obvious why I’ve at least slightly
gravitated towards IoT/embedded security.
This brings me to my next insight: I’m still very much a generalist. I’ve
always felt that being a generalist has hamstrung me from working on cool
things, but I’m beginning to think the only thing hamstringing me is me. Now I
just need to get over the notion that 0x20 is too old of an age for cool
security/vulnerability research. I’m focusing on IoT and I’ve managed to
exclude certain areas of security in the interests of time management: for as
fascinating as DFIR is, I’m not actively pursuing anything in that space because
it turns out time is a finite quantity and spreading it too thin means getting
nowhere with anything.
Outwardly, I’m happy that BSidesLV and DEF CON both appear to have had an
increasingly diverse attendance,
though I have no idea how accurate the numbers are given their methodology.
(To be fair, I’m super happy someone is trying to even to figure this out in the
chaos that is hacker summer camp.) The industry, and the conferences, may never
hit a 50/50 gender split, but I think that’s okay if we can get to a point where
we build an inclusive meritocracy of an environment. Ensuring that women,
LGBTQ, and minorities who want to get into this industry can do so and feel
included when they do is critical to our success. I’m a firm believer that the
best security professionals draw from their life background when designing
solutions, and having a diverse set of life backgrounds ensures a diverse set of
solutions. Different experiences and different viewpoints avoids groupthink, so
I’m very hopeful to see those numbers continue to rise each year.
I have zero data to back this up, but observationally, it seemed that more
attendees brought their kids with them to hacker summer camp. I love this:
inspiring the next generation of hackers, showing them that technology can be
used to do cool things, and that it’s never too early to start learning about it
will benefit both them (excel in the workforce, even if they take the hacker
mindset to another industry) and society (more creative/critical thinkers,
better understanding of future tech, and hopefully keeping them on the white hat
side). I don’t know how much of this is a sign of the maturing industry (more
hackers have kids now), more parents feel that it’s important to expose their
kids to this community, or maybe just a result of the different layout of
Caesar’s, leading to bad observations.
There were a few things from my packing list this year that turned out to be
really useful. I’m going to try to do an updated planning post pair (e.g., one
far out and one shortly before con) for next year, but there’s a few things I
really thought were useful and so I’ll highlight them here.
- An evaporative cooling towel really helps with the
Vegas heat. It’s super lightweight and takes virtually no space. Dry, its
useful as a normal towel, but if you wet it slightly, the evaporating water
actually cools off the towel (and you). Awesome for 108 degree weather.
- An aluminum water bottle would’ve been nice. Again,
fight the dehydration. In the con space, there’s lots of water dispensers
with at least filtered water (Vegas tap water is terrible) plus the SIGG
bottles are nice because you can use a carabiner to strap it to your bag. I
like the aluminum better than a polycarbonate (aka Nalgene) because it won’t
crack no matter how you abuse it. (Ok, maybe it’s possible to crack aluminum,
but this isn’t the Hydraulic Press Channel.)
- RFID sleeves. I mentioned these before. Yes, my
room key was based on some RFID/proximity technology. Yes, a proxmark can
clone it. Yes, I wanted to avoid that happening without my knowing.
For some reason, I didn’t get a chance to break out a lot of the hacking gear I
brought with me, but I’ll probably continue to bring it to cons “just in case”.
I’m usually checking a bag anyway, so a few pounds of gear is a better option
than regretting it if I want to do something.
That concludes my Hacker Summer Camp blog series for this year. I hope it’s
been useful, entertaining, or both. Agree with something I said? Disagree?
Hit me up on Twitter or find me via other means of
05 Aug 2017
DEF CON, of course, is the main event of Hacker Summer Camp for me. It’s the
largest gathering of hackers in the world, and it’s the only opportunity I get
to see some of the people I know in the industry. It’s also the most hands-on
of all of the conferences I’ve ever attended, and the people running the
villages clearly know their stuff and are super passionate about their area.
Nowhere do I see so much raw talent and excitement for the hacker spirit as at
This year was the first year at Caesar’s Palace and quite frankly, it showed. Traffic
control reminded me of the first year at Bally’s/Paris: as best as they could do
without any data, but still far from optimal. Additionally, Dark Tangent
pointed out that they were expecting 6% growth, but ended up closer to 20%.
That’s thousands extra. The rule that they do not sell out and everyone gets
through the door is not without its downsides.
Overall, this year was incredible for me personally. Though I attended no main
track talks, I made it to a couple of Sky Talks and some village talks, as well
as a bunch of village activities. I met a bunch of interesting people who are
working on interesting technical things, which is great because it reminds me
why I got into this industry in the first place and what I want to be doing in
The IoT village was excellent, but I wish I had gotten to it earlier to
participate in the IoT CTF – it looked like a lot of fun, and their physical
target range wasn’t something you see everyday. They had everything from
cheap bluetooth devices to the Google Home and Amazon Alexa, and I believe this
is a reflection of where we’ll see the future growth in security – the IoT
isn’t a passing fad, and we’ll have millions of low-cost devices deployed and
not properly managed. There’s no time like the present to get security to the
front and center of the IoT device design process.
In previous years, I’d always played in the Capture the Packet contest. This
year I opted out, despite having a bye in the first round, because there was so
much going on and because it had consumed too much of my time at DEF CON 24. I
don’t regret this decision, but it is something I missed slightly. In fact, it
ended up that I never even set foot in the packet capture village! (I guess
that’s what happens to villages at the end of halls?)
The “linecon” joke was never more accurate than this year – there was a line
for everything! Not only did every talk have lines, but there were lines to get
into the Biohacking Village, the Swag line was long (where was Hacker Stickers
with our official unofficial swag?), even the line for Mohawkcon was ridiculous!
(Maybe next year I just need to get a mohawk before I go there – it’s not like
I don’t donate to the EFF anyway.) I’m sure this is a combination of many
factors, including the growth of the community, the new venue, and the fact that
it wouldn’t be DEF CON without linecon.
The DEF CON artwork is not something I normally write about, largely because I’m
no artist and I barely have an eye for, well, anything, but I really thought the
art was excellent this year. I so desperately wanted to rip one of the posters
off the wall next to the escalators! (I have hopes one of them might appear in
a charity auction at some point, but I didn’t see it at con.)
Caesar’s as a venue was okay – there was noticably more space, but figuring out
how to get between some of the areas was not crystal clear. A lot of that was
on me – I should’ve done more recon of the con area. (Look for a “lessons
learned” post coming soon.) My hotel room was awesome though, and in the tower
right above the con space, so I had that going for me. Fingers crossed to get
in the same tower next year.
Dual Core had an outstanding show on the Friday Night lineup. I don’t care what
DEF CON calls the headliner, Dual Core is always the headliner for my music
tastes. I’ve seen him perform live at least once at every DEF CON and at dozens
of other events (Southeast Linux Fest, DerbyCon, etc.), and I just don’t think
it would be a full con without seeing him.
Mad props to DT and all the DEF CON Goons and organizers who work so hard to put
the event together. No matter how much chaos there may be, I’ve had a great
time every year, and I wouldn’t miss it for the world. That’s just a part of
the World’s Biggest Hacker Convention.
31 Jul 2017
In my post the Many Badges of DEF CON 25
I may have not-so-subtly hinted that there was something I was working on.
While none of the ones I listed were created in response to the announcement
that DEF CON had been forced to switch to “Plan B” with their badges, mine more
or less was. Ever since I saw the Queercon badge in 2015, I’d had the idea to
create my own electronic badge, but the announcement spurred me on to action.
However, what could I do in only 2 months? Before I created this badge, I had
never created a PCB. All my electronics design work before had been on protoboards at
best, and while I had assembled SMD electronics on PCBs before, I had no idea
how to design with it. So, it seemed like a perfect learning opportunity.
Boy, did I ever learn. In the process of creating this badge, I created 3
separate sets of PCBs, soldered 7 finished badges, (yes, only 7 – maybe this
was the most exclusive unofficial badge?), debugged numerous problems, and read
way more datasheets than I expected I would.
So what did I come up with? Well, how does 48 RGB LEDs drawing up to 15W of
power sound? Overkill? It totally was.
Ok, maybe there’s a little too much glare there. Sorry. It turns out that
pointing a cell phone at 48 LEDs rarely results in a quality photo. Let’s try
it again without the blinding light.
Way better, don’t you think? This is the “XXV Badge” – 48 APA102C LEDs
controlled by a Atmel SAMD21 ARM Cortex M0
MCU clocked at 48 MHz. The SAMD21 runs at 3.3v, the LEDs at 5V, so I have a
boost converter driving the LEDs based on a TPS61232. A 74AHCT125 quad buffer
provides level conversion (though not really designed to, it works quite well)
for the SPI signals. All told, there’s 98 components, though many of them are
simply things like decoupling capacitors.
I know the design is simple, but I’m no artist. On the other hand, I feel like
it worked out quite well for the parties and I got a number of compliments and
interest in the badge, so I’m pretty happy with the outcome for my first badge
design (and first PCB!) I can’t wait to start thinking about next year!
The boost converter design & layout are approximately based on the reference
design from TI, but I had to make a few adaptations due to part size and layout
constraints. Fortunately, it ended up working out pretty well, and with fresh
batteries, the output is well-regulated. However, running all of the LEDs at
full brightness draws more current than 3xAAAs can support, causing the input
voltage to the boost converter to drop and resulting either in an immense amount
of ripple, or so much dropout that the SAMD21 CPU resets.
Kicad design files and firmware source code are on
GitHub! My production boards were produced
31 Jul 2017
I’ve returned from this year’s edition of Hacker Summer Camp, and while I’m
completely and utterly exhausted, I wanted to get my thoughts about this year’s
events out before I completely forget what happened.
The Pros vs Joes CTF was, yet again, a high quality event despite the usual
bumps and twists. This was the largest PvJ ever, with more than 80 people
involved between Blue Pros, Blue Joes, Red Cell, Grey Cell, and Gold Cell. Each
blue team had 11 players between the two Pros and 9 Joes, making them slightly
larger than in years past. (Though I believe that’s a temporary “feature” of
this year’s game.)
I was also incredibly happy by the diversity displayed by the event this year:
at least 3 of the blue teams had women on them, as did both Gold and Grey cells.
Teams had experienced players, with some being veterans, as well as players with
no professional experience (students) and professionals working outside the
information security industry (my team alone had two electrical engineers).
This mix is part of what makes Pros vs Joes so good – everybody has something
to contribute, and you get such a wide range of views and experiences. Two
players on my team absolutely crushed the Windows aspects of the game, which
was incredible because everyone knows I’m a hardcore Linux guy. (The last
version of Windows I used as a “daily driver” was Windows XP SP 2. In 2003.)
Game mechanics were incredibly different this year than in years past. No
longer did a team turn in “integrity flags” for local points. More hosts had
multiple scored services. Tickets incurred a penality if they were reopened.
Most signiciantly, there was a store where teams could buy a variety of things,
including the services of a Red Team member, a Security Onion box (I gotta give
Security Onion a try!), or “outsourcing” a grey team ticket. My team chose to
make little use of this store, but other teams made extensive use of Dichotomy’s
Emporium. (I’m not convinced that either is an “optimal” strategy, because a
lot depends on the strengths and weaknesses of their own team.) I can’t wait to
see the analysis from our data scientist on the different aspects of the game.
The game environment, on the other hand, was essentially unchanged from last
year. The same vulnerabilities and hosts were present. This lead to quite a
bit of surprise when, during scorched earth, I was able to use the same BIND 9
bug to take out DNS (and consequently, the ability of Scorebot to reach any
services) for all 3 other teams (which was a repeat of my same scorched earth
tactic from last year). A note to future captains: DNS is important, perhaps
you’d like to patch that machine.
I’ll leave any major announcements about the game to Dichotomy, but I do want to
mention that I envision more collaboration between the Pros & Staff over the
next year. Pros vs Joes is a learning CTF first, and this will allow us to
build a more immersive environment and a better set of resources for the blue
staff to use in mentoring Joes.
I was exhausted by the end of this PvJ, but it was a kind of good exhaustion.
No matter how tired I was, I was satisfied to know that all of my players seemed
to have learned something throughout the course of the game, and the cherry on
top was a victory for ShellAntics. Thanks to Dichotomy, Gold Cell, Red Cell (no
hard feelings t1v0?), and of course, the awesome Joes on my team.