Name that Ware, July 2020

July 31st, 2020

The Ware for July 2020 is shown below.

This ware is ever so slightly cropped to hide the connectors on the edges, which would make it way too easy to guess.

Winner, Name that Ware June 2020

July 31st, 2020

The Ware for June 2020 is an Elcotel Series 5 payphone. Apparently it was found vandalized in a parking lot, and so a few pictures of its insides were able to find its way to me via Bob Parker (thank you!). I always wondered what was inside these payphones, now I know. Gratz again to jackw01 for nailing it, email me for your prize!

On Liberating My Smartwatch From Cloud Services

July 25th, 2020

I’ve often said that if we convince ourselves that technology is magic, we risk becoming hostages to it. Just recently, I had a brush with this fate, but happily, I was saved by open source.

At the time of writing, Garmin is suffering from a massive ransomware attack. I also happen to be a user of the Garmin Instinct watch. I’m very happy with it, and in many ways, it’s magical how much capability is packed into such a tiny package.

I also happen to have a hobby of paddling the outrigger canoe:

I consider the GPS watch to be an indispensable piece of safety gear, especially for the boat’s steer, because it’s hard to judge your water speed when you’re more than a few hundred meters from land. If you get stuck in a bad current, without situational awareness you could end up swept out to sea or worse.

The water currents around Singapore can be extreme. When the tides change, the South China Sea eventually finds its way to the Andaman Sea through the Singapore Strait, causing treacherous flows of current that shift over time. Thus, after every paddle, I upload my GPS data to the Garmin Connect cloud and review the route, in part to note dangerous changes in the ebb-and-flow patterns of currents.

While it’s a clear and present privacy risk to upload such data to the Garmin cloud, we’re all familiar with the trade-off: there’s only 24 hours in the day to worry about things, and the service just worked so well.

Until yesterday.

We had just wrapped up a paddle with particularly unusual currents, and my paddling partner wanted to know our speeds at a few of the tricky spots. I went to retrieve the data and…well, I found out that Garmin was under attack.

Garmin was being held hostage, and transitively, so was access to my paddling data: a small facet of my life had become a hostage to technology.

A bunch of my paddling friends recommended I try Strava. The good news is Garmin allows data files to be retrieved off of the Instinct watch, for upload to third-party services. All you have to do is plug the watch into a regular USB port, and it shows up as a mass storage device.

The bad news is as I tried to create an account on Strava, all sorts of warning bells went off. The website is full of dark patterns, and when I clicked to deny Strava access to my health-related data, I was met with this tricky series dialog boxes:

Click “Decline”…

Click “Deny Permission”…

Click “OK”…

Three clicks to opt out, and if I wasn’t paying attention and just kept clicking the bottom box, I would have opted-in by accident. After this, I was greeted by a creepy list of people to follow (how do they know so much about me from just an email?), and then there’s a tricky dialog box that, if answered incorrectly, routes you to a spot to enter credit card information as part of your “free trial”.

Since Garmin at least made money by selling me a $200+ piece of hardware, collecting my health data is just icing on the cake; for Strava, my health data is the cake. It’s pretty clear to me that Strava made a pitch to its investors that they’ll make fat returns by monetizing my private data, including my health information.

This is a hard no for me. Instead of liberating myself from a hostage situation, going from Garmin to Strava would be like stepping out of the frying pan and directly into the fire.

So, even though this was a busy afternoon … I’m scheduled to paddle again the day after tomorrow, and it would be great to have my boat speed analytics before then. Plus, I was sufficiently miffed by the Strava experience that I couldn’t help but start searching around to see if I couldn’t cobble together my own privacy-protecting alternative.

I was very pleased to discovered an open-source utility called gpsbabel (thank you gpsbabel! I donated!) that can unpack Garmin’s semi-(?)proprietary “.FIT” file format into the interoperable “.GPX” format. From there, I was able to cobble together bits and pieces of XML parsing code and merge it with OpenStreetMaps via the Folium API to create custom maps of my data.

Even with getting “lost” on a detour of trying to use the Google Maps API that left an awful “for development only” watermark on all my map tiles, this only took an evening — it wasn’t the best possible use of my time all things considered, but it was mostly a matter of finding the right open-source pieces and gluing them together with Python (fwiw, Python is a great glue, but a terrible structural material. Do not build skyscrapers out of Python). The code quality is pretty crap, but Python allows that, and it gets the job done. Given those caveats, one could use it as a starting point for something better.

Now that I have full control over my data, I’m able to visualize it in ways that make sense to me. For example, I’ve plotted my speed as a heat map map over the course, with circles proportional to the speed at that moment, and a hover-text that shows my instantaneous speed and heart rate:

It’s exactly the data I need, in the format that I want; no more, and no less. Plus, the output is a single html file that I can share directly with nothing more than a simple link. No analytics, no cookies. Just the data I’ve chosen to share with you.

Here’s a snippet of the code that I use to plot the map data:

Like I said, not the best quality code, but it works, and it was quick to write.

Even better yet, I’m no longer uploading my position or fitness data to the cloud — there is a certain intangible satisfaction in “going dark” for yet another surveillance leakage point in my life, without any compromise in quality or convenience.

It’s also an interesting meta-story about how healthy and vibrant the open-source ecosystem is today. When the Garmin cloud fell, I was able to replace the most important functions of it in just an afternoon by cutting and pasting together various open source frameworks.

The point of open source is not to ritualistically compile our stuff from source. It’s the awareness that technology is not magic: that there is a trail of breadcrumbs any of us could follow to liberate our digital lives in case of a potential hostage situation. Should we so desire, open source empowers us to create and run our own essential tools and services.

Edits: added details on how to take data off the watch, and noted the watch’s price.

A Near-Ultrasound (NUS) Data Link

July 8th, 2020

We were requested to investigate “near ultrasound” (NUS) links as part of our research on developing the Simmel reference design for a privacy-preserving COVID-19 contact tracing device. After a month of poking at it, the TL;DR is that, as suspected, the physics of NUS is not conducive to reliable contact tracing. While BLE has the problem that you have too many false positive contacts, NUS has the problem of too many false negatives: pockets, purses, and your own body can effectively block the signal.

That being said, we did develop a pretty decent-performing NUS data link, so we’ve packed up what we did into an open source reference design that you can clone and use in your own projects.


Top trace: demodulated data at 1 meter, 50dB background noise. Bottom trace: raw signal, normalized so it is visible. Without normalization the trace just looks like a flat line.

I imagine one use for this would be a way to provision IoT devices: the “how do I get wifi credentials into an IoT device that lacks both screen and keyboard?” problem. With the addition of a ~$1 microphone to a Cortex-M4 class device, you get a short-range data link to a host device, such as a phone. You can use a web page (via Javascript) to generate the modulated audio directly (relevant example), thus bypassing a host of multi-platform issues, or you can generate a file off-line and send it to any standard music player.

The TL;DR on the link is it uses a 20,833Hz carrier modulated with BPSK. We use PSK31 coding, so our baud rate is ~651 symbols per second (this is the 1/0 symbol rate before Varicode encoding). This isn’t breaking any speed records, but it’s good enough to send a UUID and some keys over the air in a couple seconds. Tests show decent performance over a distance of 1 meter with about 60dB ambient noise (normal conversation or background music playing at the same time).

The demodulator uses a Costas loop. We’ve documented its details, including comments on porting to other chipsets than the NRF52.

We also have a reference modulator using a non-linear transducer (e.g. a piezo element), which uses some of the more advanced features of the NRF52 PWM block to eliminate audible sidebands. We also have a rough C program to generate a .wav file, which needs to be run through a high-pass filter using e.g. Audacity to eliminate the low-frequency modulation sidebands; but the resulting .wav file can be played directly on your smartphone and it will demodulate correctly.


Acknowledgements: Sean ‘xobs’ Cross is an equal contributor to this research. This research is funded through the NGI0 PET Fund, a fund established by NLnet with financial support from the European Commission’s Next Generation Internet programme, under the aegis of DG Communications Networks, Content and Technology under grant agreement No 825310.

Name that Ware, June 2020

June 30th, 2020

The Ware for June 2020 is shown below.

Thanks to Bob Parker for contributing this ware.

And thanks to everyone who has been submitting guest wares. Since March I literally have not moved outside a circle with a 3-km (2-mi) radius, and there’s currently no end in sight to that trend. I appreciate the interesting diversity of wares being sent my way, please keep them coming!

On that note, if you have a travel bag of gadgets that has been collecting dust for the past few months, don’t forget to check the condition of their batteries; deeply discharged lithium batteries are never a good thing.