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You Don’t Really Own Your Hardware: The War on Electronics Repair

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The ways that companies like Apple try to extract more cash from their customer base are many. The notion of planned obsolescence is defined by the Oxford dictionary like so:

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A policy of producing consumer goods that rapidly become obsolete and so require replacing, achieved by frequent changes in design, termination of the supply of spare parts, and the use of nondurable materials.

The dictionary definition obviously doesn’t cover it all, but suffice it to say that releasing a new model every year with improvements only sufficient to make older models not capable of running updates is one good example. But getting customers to buy new hardware is not the only way to make more from them. You can also make it nearly impossible for the common person to repair their own stuff, so that they then either a) buy new hardware or b) bring it back to you for repair. The ways this is done are myriad, as Motherboard writer Jason Koebler notes in his recent report on the subject.

Pentalobe screw

The Pentalobe screw design. Courtesy: iFixit

Koebler caught up with the CEO of iFixit, Kyle Wiens. iFixit is a company which has helped people repair their own hardware by developing tools to counterbalance the complicated designs that Apple has implemented. A particular gripe among consumers is the Pentalobe screw, a screw for which there are not widely available screwdrivers.

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Koebler recounted how he personally discovered the Pentalobe after breaking his Macbook screen and deciding against the $600 Apple replacement plan, as well as the $500 independent
repairman replacement. He wanted to do it himself. In a bygone generation, this urge would have been commonplace. This is to say that it didn’t used to be the realm of “hardware hackers” to fix your own stuff. It was just smarter, since repair people value their time like anyone else and rightly charge fair labor rates.

Wiens told Koebler that Apple and other companies have been on a mission to eliminate consumer access to their own devices, from software to hardware. The DMCA has been used to make code virtually off-limits, and there’s not a lot that can be done about that at this point in history. But on the hardware side, the companies must find more creative ways to combat user creativity. Speaking of his company’s production of a consumer grade Pentalobe screwdriver, Wiens said:

That was the first screwdriver in the world outside of Apple that would remove the pentalobe screw. Apple was literally screwing their customers, and because we had a heads up, we were able to sell a screwdriver as soon as it came to the United States.

iFixit also offers other help to consumers, such as the ability to fix the red ring of death – a rather common occurrence for Xbox users. One has to wonder if it was always this way, and for the purpose of this investigation, we will focus on Apple.

Also read: Most of America’s 100M+ Active iPhones Are iPhone 6 or Later

Cultural Shift

iPhone Unscrewing

Apple was not always the major conglomerate it is now. Without the help of countless retail outlets, third-party repair people, and even open source software (BSD is the basis for OS X, which can be seen as a major part of Apple’s resurgence), Apple may never have been a household name. The company didn’t open its first retail outlet until 2001, decades after its founding. Koebler notes that in 2010, Apple started with the Pentalope screws. Before that, it was mostly Philips and other industry-standard kit.

But Wiens doesn’t see it as merely a consumer rights issue. He also considers it an environmental one, in that many devices which don’t get fixed are destined for massive landfills in Africa and elsewhere. He believes that the people who live near these e-waste dumps are lacking crucial information on how to fix the wealth of electronics which have been dumped there. This is not to mention the mercury and other toxins which eventually seep out of dumped electronics, part of the reason there are special methods of disposing them in the West. Wiens said:

What’s really the problem is there are products that are complex and the manufacturers are sharing none of the information on how to fix them. You make a million printers, they’re used in a million different ways. At the end of their life, they also get thrown away or discarded in a million different ways. That’s the lever we can pull by teaching people to fix things. We had accidentally stumbled across the solution to a really big problem.

Laptop fanApple and other companies employ numerous other methods to keep the repairmen at bay, including imprinting their logo everywhere they can in hopes that a judge will consider trademark infringement. But in the end, Apple doesn’t need to earn money this way, and as long as there are barriers, there will be tunnel diggers.

Chinese parts which cost a fraction of list price and do the job just as well abound. To further solidify their position, companies have begun making deals with phone carriers to have “leasing” programs as opposed to ownership. And given all the ways they seem to desire that people don’t work on their own stuff, it certainly seems they don’t believe it matters that you bought the product with the expectation of having ownership of it. For Apple posted record smashing profits this year and brought in more than 90% of all smart phone profits. So in their eyes, the status quo is working.

Featured image from Shutterstock. Additional images from iFixit.

Important: Never invest (trade with) money you can't afford to comfortably lose. Always do your own research and due diligence before placing a trade. Read our Terms & Conditions here. Trade recommendations and analysis are written by our analysts which might have different opinions. Read my 6 Golden Steps to Financial Freedom here. Best regards, Jonas Borchgrevink.

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5 stars on average, based on 1 rated postsP. H. Madore has covered the cryptocurrency beat over the course of hundreds of articles for Hacked's sister site, CryptoCoinsNews, as well as some of her competitors. He is a major contributing developer to the Woodcoin project, and has made technical contributions on a number of other cryptocurrency projects. In spare time, he recently began a more personalized, weekly newsletter at http://ico.phm.link




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3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. englishvinal

    November 25, 2015 at 9:38 pm

    Simple remedy… STOP handling Apple you money… and yes, go without that “cute” device, whatever it may be.
    People lived their lives perfectly adequately 30 years ago WITHOUT Apple… or “texting”.. or even email (as much as I enjoy email).. Microsoft has always been a deliberate rip off… and Apple has joined the band of thieves.

    Personally I really honestly believe it is way past time for people to WAKE UP and take a long look at what is being done to them. And fight back the only way that makes a difference, with their pocketbooks.

    • P. H. Madore

      November 30, 2015 at 9:11 pm

      Indeed. The author runs Linux exclusively, I’m told, and only pays for software licenses when commercially necessary.

  2. Jensi

    February 2, 2016 at 8:19 am

    In generally the apple only gives the brand name otherwise
    it makes more expensive in maintenance.

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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:

Important: Never invest (trade with) money you can't afford to comfortably lose. Always do your own research and due diligence before placing a trade. Read our Terms & Conditions here. Trade recommendations and analysis are written by our analysts which might have different opinions. Read my 6 Golden Steps to Financial Freedom here. Best regards, Jonas Borchgrevink.

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5 stars on average, based on 1 rated postsP. H. Madore has covered the cryptocurrency beat over the course of hundreds of articles for Hacked's sister site, CryptoCoinsNews, as well as some of her competitors. He is a major contributing developer to the Woodcoin project, and has made technical contributions on a number of other cryptocurrency projects. In spare time, he recently began a more personalized, weekly newsletter at http://ico.phm.link




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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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Important: Never invest (trade with) money you can't afford to comfortably lose. Always do your own research and due diligence before placing a trade. Read our Terms & Conditions here. Trade recommendations and analysis are written by our analysts which might have different opinions. Read my 6 Golden Steps to Financial Freedom here. Best regards, Jonas Borchgrevink.

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Giulio Prisco is a freelance writer specialized in science, technology, business and future studies.




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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.

Important: Never invest (trade with) money you can't afford to comfortably lose. Always do your own research and due diligence before placing a trade. Read our Terms & Conditions here. Trade recommendations and analysis are written by our analysts which might have different opinions. Read my 6 Golden Steps to Financial Freedom here. Best regards, Jonas Borchgrevink.

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