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Hardware

A Crash-Proof File System for Your Computer May Soon Be a Reality

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MIT researchers will soon present the first computer file system that is guaranteed to remain uncorrupted and retain data during a crash, potentially changing modern day computer file systems for the better, the MIT news office revealed.

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The file system is a fundamental part of any operating system in a computer that helps write data to the hard disk and allows indexing and searching for data stored on a disk.

In the event of a computer crash during the transfer or writing of data onto a hard drive, the file system can become corrupt. That applies to any modern day computer file system including NTFS & FAT32 (Windows), HFS+ (OS X), XFS (Linux).

At the expense of pace set by today’s file systems, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers plan to present the first file system that is guaranteed corruption-free at the ACM Symposium on Operating System Principles this October.

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MIT

MIT

Despite being slower than the file systems we’re used to, the tests and techniques used by researchers to verify the file system’s performance can lead to better, sophisticated designs. Moreover, formal verification after its presentation would help develop efficient and reliable file systems, the MIT News Office reports.

Nickolai Zeldovich, an associate professor of computer science and engineering at MIT and one of three contributing professors to the technology said:

What many people worry about is building these file systems to be reliable, both when they’re operating normally but also in the case of crashes, power failure, software bugs, hardware errors… Making sure that the file system can recover from a crash at any point is tricky because there are so many different places that you could crash.

Putting it to the Test

The three professors were able to test and establish the functional reliability of their file system by adopting a process routinely known as ‘formal verification.’

Formal verification is a complicated process, and yet the MIT researchers’ work is remarkable because they inherently prove the working properties of the file system’s final code.

The method of formal verification entails the setting of acceptable mathematical bounds of operation for a computer program before proving the program will not exceed these boundaries. Due to its complicated structure, formal verification usually applies to advanced schematic representations of a program’s functionality. When these schematics are translated to working code, complications that aren’t addressed by the proofs are a certainty.

“All these paper proofs about other file systems may actually be correct, but there’s no file system that we can be sure represents what the proof is about,” confirmed Daniel Ziegler, an undergraduate at MIT who also worked on the file system.

When writing and testing the file system repeatedly, the researchers retooled the system specifications over and again to prove the file system’s reproducibility.

“No one had done it,” adds Frans Kaashoek, a professor at MIT’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS). “It’s not like you could look up a paper that says, ‘This is the way to do it.’ But now you can read our paper and presumably do it a lot faster.”

Google’s Ulfar Erlingsson, the lead manager for security research observed the MIT researchers’ work remotely and had this to say:

…this is stuff that’s going to get built on and applied in many different domains. That’s what’s so exciting.

Images from Shutterstock and MIT.

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  1. Thomistic Cajetan

    August 24, 2015 at 10:50 pm

    Awesome stuff! Yeah, I am wondering whether this will work in BSD. I know I have had several file system crashes that are difficult to recover, we will see, but this is definitely exciting stuff.

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Cybersecurity

Israeli Researchers Turn Speakers/Headphones Into Eavesdropping Microphones

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In the current age, even the most secure software and the best security practices might not be enough to prevent someone from being spied upon. Researchers continue to find novel and inventive ways to gather more data on everyday computer users, and the latest research from Israel’s Ben Gurion University is exceptional in this regard.

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Using software alone, Mordechai Guri, Yosef Solewicz, Andrey Daidakulov, and Yuval Elovici were able to convert a given pair of headphones or speakers into Orwellian microphones beyond the user’s control or ability to patch. Their method [PDF] exploits a flaw in RealTek hardware chips, which are one of the most widely used chips in motherboards around the world. Companies like Dell, HP, and Compaq regularly utilize RealTek’s industry standard audio chips in their products. Beyond that, motherboards sold to consumers wishing to build their own systems often also include the hardware.

A simple patch or firmware upgrade will not fix this flaw, making the exploit particularly delightful to intelligence agencies, profit-motivated hackers (think boardroom conference calls), and others. Basically, anywhere a computer has an audio output, which in the case of laptops is everywhere, audio can now be intercepted and then relayed with roughly the same quality as if a microphone itself had been compromised. The images of people like Mark Zuckerberg covering up their webcam and microphone with electrical tape now seem trivial.

Jack re-tasking – the process of converting an output jack to either an input or a two-way port – has long been a possibility, but few developers make use of it. Most laptops and desktops will have separate ports for each, while smartphones and the like often require hardware that can do both. But the innovation on the part of Ben Gurion’s researchers involves making any regular output hardware capable of doing as much with only software. They write:

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The fact that headphones and earphones are physically built like microphones, coupled with the fact that an audio port’s role in the PC can be altered programmatically from output to input, creates a vulnerability which can be abused by hackers.

The researchers noticed that the design of most audio input and output hardware was basically identical at the metal, drawing the following illustration for clarification:

Source: Ben-Gurion University of the Negev Cyber Security Research Center

Source: Ben-Gurion University of the Negev Cyber Security Research Center

One saving grace is that the audio output device must be “passive,” or unpowered. This means that if your speakers require power to work, they are not currently able to use these to listen to you. However, the vast majority of laptop speakers and earbuds are, by nature and necessity, passive. The researchers note that while they focused on RealTek codec hardware because of their popularity, other manufacturers also have the ability to retask jacks, which is the heart of the exploit.

While this may seem scary at first, it should be noted that, like anything else on your computer, audio input and output are data. They can therefore be encrypted with keys that are local to the machine, and it would seem that this new exploit opens up a new avenue of research for cryptographic researchers to institute audio encryption in the same way that full-disk encryption has become normalized.

Here is a demonstration of the method in action:

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Electronics

Chinese Physicists Achieve Record-Breaking Quantum Cryptography Breakthrough

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Researchers at the University of Science and Technology of China and other Chinese labs, with the collaboration of a lab in the US, have implemented a secure quantum protocol known as Measurement-Device-Independent Quantum Key Distribution (MDIQKD), suitable for practical networks and devices, over a distance of 404 km. The breakthrough, which doubles the previous MDIQKD record, opens the door to secure wide area quantum communication networks.

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Electronics

Dot: Precision Tracking Hardware Makes Your Smartphones Smarter

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Dot

A team of five Berkeley engineers has developed a new hardware product that utilizes precision location tracking to make smartphone notifications highly intelligent and contextual.

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In the technology-minded world that we live in it’s nearly impossible to walk down the street without encountering someone on their phone. However, with the amount of information that we store in our phones it can be difficult to filter out what’s important and what’s not.

This is where Dot enters the scene.

Dot

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Developed by startup Iota Labs, Dot is a physical push notification that informs your smartphone where you are so that it can determine your patterns and behaviors in the locations that make up your world. This could be your living room, bedroom, place of work, car, or garage.

The team behind the creation have made it so that it serves a dual purpose. The first is to provide ultra-precise location data to your smartphone. The second is to permit users to create extensible, interactive interfaces anywhere.

Speaking to Hacked, Rahul Ramakrishnan, co-founder of Iota Labs, said that the idea behind Dot came up over a year ago through a combination of two events. The first was when he and a fellow co-founder of Iota Labs were at a restaurant and witnessed a family constantly checking their phones instead of paying attention to each other.

He said:

Then we watched 2001: A Space Odyssey with Hal 9000 and thought that it would be awesome if there was some sort of personal secretary that streamlines your life and your phone.

After getting into the Foundry in October 2015, a startup accelerator on Berkeley’s campus focused on hardware startups, the team at the time were only undergraduate students where they received some funding from the Foundry team to make their idea a possibility.

Dot

From October to May, the team focused on the product development and from June 2016 they turned their attention to their Kickstarter campaign for an August launch. At the close of their Kickstarter campaign yesterday, the team managed to raise over $115,000 with more than 1,700 backers, and according to Ramakrishnan, nearly 5,000 units have been pre-ordered.

He said:

Our product is out there and people seem to like [it].

How Does It Work?

While the idea behind Dot may not have taken long to design, the execution of it took the team around nine months to make in order to achieve the small size of it. Within the small piece of hardware, though, is a Bluetooth low energy chip and LED. Due to the proximity sensor within the Dot, it can track your location within 200 feet of range of your smartphone as it communicates with iOS and Android apps.

dot-app

According to Ramakrishnan, the Dot acts as a beacon that triggers functions on a smartphone such as notifications or app launching. A smartphone can also communicate to the Dot by turning on the LED to different colors or changing the blink rates, based on what is set on the app.

Ramakrishnan added:

All of this occurs when you are within range of a Dot and triggers actions on your phone, making it contextual and intelligent.

What Does It Do?

As most people tend to have different uses for their phone, the team at Dot realized that they needed to ensure that Dot was equipped with an endless amount of applications to fulfil people’s needs.

DotSome of the applications Dot has are: digital post-it notes, which allows you to post a message on a Dot for another person to see when they come in range; smart home control that gives you control over your home devices such as turning a light on or off; contextual app launching that enables the Dot to open up apps on your smartphone that you utilize frequently in certain areas; location notification, which allows a Dot to enable a smartphone to send you updates when you walk into a new area; and LED colour changes, which permits a Dot to track certain reminders based on the color of the dot.

The team is hoping that with the use of the Dot it will help to streamline people’s lives by eliminating the clutter that a smartphone provides.

Ramakrishnan stated:

This will free the user to take action only when it’s readily available based on where they are and what they are doing rather than being overwhelmed with all of their tasks that are on their phone.

Not only that, but compared to many things available the Dot is considerably cheaper that adds to the functionality and ease of existing technology.

The smart home is dominated by these $200 devices like Philips Hue light bulbs and Nest thermostats that don’t know who you are, where you are, and what you are doing. With just a $25 Dot, all of these questions can be answered and can greatly improve the experience of the smart home without any additional user input.

Ramakrishnan added that every notification you receive from Dot means that it’s important. “You don’t have to sort through your notifications any longer. With Dot, we make your smartphone smarter.”

The team is expecting to ship Dot’s to their Kickstarter backers in March 2017 with pre-orders still accepted on the website.

Featured image and story images from Iota Labs.

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