Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Are We In Control Of Our Machines? Part 2

In part one, I talked about how to go about using only free software on your desktop or laptop computer, mostly leaving other consumer electronics out of the conversation.  Hence, part 2.

Most people in the developed world have a multitude of computers around them.  Most people don't even consider most of these computers to be computers, though some are more similar to laptop and desktop computers than others.

Just to name a few examples of the computers which surround us, most of us own a gaming system, cell phone, television, car, several set top boxes, kitchen appliances, networking and computer paraphernalia, and a multitude of other devices which contain embedded computers.  As a software engineer, it makes me uncomfortable that I don't really know what these devices do while I'm not looking.  And as a software engineer, it makes me think there must be a better way.

Why Is It The Way It Is?

Hackers are busy people, and their time is valuable to them.  They tend to work on what has the most payoff.  That doesn't usually describe flashing the firmware on their microwave ovens.  It does however describe flashing the firmware on their routers and game systems.  As a result, there are several GNU/Linux distributions made for routers such as DD-WRT and OpenWrt and for all of the major game consoles, there is a "homebrew" project soon after release.

In short, we hackers who are interested in exercising control over our devices choose our battles.

Which Devices are Lacking Free Software?

As I see it, the important devices which have yet to bet touched by a significant amount of user-controllable Free Software are the majority of mobile phones, televisions, some set-top boxes, computer peripherals such as scanners and printers, and automobiles.

Mobile phones have more control of our lives by the day.  They allow almost our entire lives to be tracked.  As many of you are already aware, it is possible for law enforcement to activate virtually all commercially available cell phones' microphones for covert surveillance.  Aside from the fact that this is a power law enforcement has not been able to exercise over citizens before, this back door is vulnerable to exploitation by malicious parties.  Why should we as owners of these devices allow this?

For televisions, the issue is more the fact that a television not in your control is one which you cannot use to its full capacity.  If your television has a sufficiently powerful embedded computer, and you wish to be able to play games from said embedded computer, there's no reason why you as the owner of the television should not be able to do this.

Set-top boxes have the capability of limiting your freedoms to do with your content as you wish.  Some already heed the "broadcast flag" which can prevent DVR's from recording content even from local broadcast television stations.

Among computer peripherals, printers are probably the most important devices to bring Free Software firmware to.  Virtually all commercially available printers print virtually invisible dots on every page which may be used to track down the printer on which it was printed.  The potential for abuse here is also great.

And, finally, automobiles' firmware touches on issues of safety, privacy, and efficiency, among others.  With vulnerable firmware, a vehicle may be unsafe.  Many vehicles these days have GPS built-in, making privacy a concern.  And, the firmware has a strong effect on the feul efficiency as well.

Many other such devices exist which users have a need to be able to control.  However, we must choose our battles and focus on the highest-priority devices first.

What Can Be Done?

For many, porting a GNU/Linux distribution to an embedded device such as a mobile phone or a set-top box is not an insurmountable task.  If you're interested in porting GNU/Linux to an embedded device, I can recommend the Gentoo Embedded Handbook.  If you have other resources for interested parties, please post them in the comments.

In some cases, Free Software has been brought to devices without porting an operating system to them.  For instance, the Nintendo Wii has the Homebrew Channel.  This not an operating system, but it does allow for writing software for the Wii (as well as installing at least a couple of different GNU/Linux distributions.)  For information on this type of approach, Andrew "Bunny" Huang's book "Hacking the Xbox" is an excellent resource.

Until next time, happy hacking.


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  2. Replies
    1. Thanks. :)

      Have you done much with GNU/Linux on embedded devices?