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Name: Matthew Garrett
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"I recieved a free or discounted product in return for an honest review"

My experiences with Amazon reviewing have been somewhat unusual. A review of a smart switch I wrote received enough attention that the vendor pulled the product from Amazon. At the time of writing, I'm ranked as around the 2750th best reviewer on Amazon despite having a total of 18 reviews. But the world of Amazon reviews is even stranger than that, and the past couple of weeks have given me some insight into it.

Amazon's success is fairly phenomenal. It's estimated that there's over 50 million people in the US paying $100 a year to get free shipping on Amazon purchases, and combined with Amazon's surprisingly customer friendly service there's a lot of people with a very strong preference for choosing Amazon rather than any other retailer. If you're not on Amazon, you're hurting your sales.

And if you're an established brand, this works pretty well. Some people will search for your product directly and buy it, leaving reviews. Well reviewed products appear higher up in search results, so people searching for an item type rather than a brand will still see your product appear early in the search results, in turn driving sales. Some proportion of those customers will leave reviews, which helps keep your product high up in the results. As long as your products aren't utterly dreadful, you'll probably maintain that position.

But if you're a brand nobody's ever heard of, things are more difficult. People are unlikely to search for your product directly, so you're relying on turning up in the results for more generic terms. But if you're selling a more generic kind of item (say, a Bluetooth smart bulb) then there's probably a number of other brands nobody's ever heard of selling almost identical objects. If there's no reason for anybody to choose your product then you're probably not going to get any reviews and you're not going to move up the search rankings. Even if your product is better than the competition, a small number of sales means a tiny number of reviews. By the time that number's large enough to matter, you're probably onto a new product cycle.

In summary: if nobody's ever heard of you, you need reviews but you're probably not getting any.

The old way of doing this was to send review samples to journalists, but nobody's going to run a comprehensive review of 3000 different USB cables and even if they did almost nobody would read it before making a decision on Amazon. You need Amazon reviews, but you're not getting any. The obvious solution is to send review samples to people who will leave Amazon reviews. This is where things start getting more dubious.

Amazon run a program called Vine which is intended to solve this problem. Send samples to Amazon and they'll distribute them to a subset of trusted reviewers. These reviewers write a review as normal, and Amazon tag the review with a "Vine Voice" badge which indicates to readers that the reviewer received the product for free. But participation in Vine is apparently expensive, and so there's a proliferation of sites like Snagshout or AMZ Review Trader that use a different model. There's no requirement that you be an existing trusted reviewer and the product probably isn't free. You sign up, choose a product, receive a discount code and buy it from Amazon. You then have a couple of weeks to leave a review, and if you fail to do so you'll lose access to the service. This is completely acceptable under Amazon's rules, which state "If you receive a free or discounted product in exchange for your review, you must clearly and conspicuously disclose that fact". So far, so reasonable.

In reality it's worse than that, with several opportunities to game the system. AMZ Review Trader makes it clear to sellers that they can choose reviewers based on past reviews, giving customers an incentive to leave good reviews in order to keep receiving discounted products. Some customers take full advantage of this, leaving a giant number of 5 star reviews for products they clearly haven't tested and then (presumably) reselling them. What's surprising is that this kind of cynicism works both ways. Some sellers provide two listings for the same product, the second being significantly more expensive than the first. They then offer an attractive discount for the more expensive listing in return for a review, taking it down to approximately the same price as the original item. Once the reviews are in, they can remove the first listing and drop the price of the second to the original price point.

The end result is a bunch of reviews that are nominally honest but are tied to perverse incentives. In effect, the overall star rating tells you almost nothing - you still need to actually read the reviews to gain any insight into whether the customer actually used the product. And when you do write an honest review that the seller doesn't like, they may engage in heavy handed tactics in an attempt to make the review go away.

It's hard to avoid the conclusion that Amazon's review model is broken, but it's not obvious how to fix it. When search ranking is tied to reviews, companies have a strong incentive to do whatever it takes to obtain positive reviews. What we're left with for now is having to laboriously click through a number of products to see whether their rankings come from thoughtful and detailed reviews or are just a mass of 5 star one liners.

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Syndicated 2016-07-09 19:09:08 from Matthew Garrett

Bluetooth LED bulbs

The best known smart bulb setups (such as the Philips Hue and the Belkin Wemo) are based on Zigbee, a low-energy, low-bandwidth protocol that operates on various unlicensed radio bands. The problem with Zigbee is that basically no home routers or mobile devices have a Zigbee radio, so to communicate with them you need an additional device (usually called a hub or bridge) that can speak Zigbee and also hook up to your existing home network. Requests are sent to the hub (either directly if you're on the same network, or via some external control server if you're on a different network) and it sends appropriate Zigbee commands to the bulbs.

But requiring an additional device adds some expense. People have attempted to solve this in a couple of ways. The first is building direct network connectivity into the bulbs, in the form of adding an 802.11 controller. Go through some sort of setup process[1], the bulb joins your network and you can communicate with it happily. Unfortunately adding wifi costs more than adding Zigbee, both in terms of money and power - wifi bulbs consume noticeably more power when "off" than Zigbee ones.

There's a middle ground. There's a large number of bulbs available from Amazon advertising themselves as Bluetooth, which is true but slightly misleading. They're actually implementing Bluetooth Low Energy, which is part of the Bluetooth 4.0 spec. Implementing this requires both OS and hardware support, so older systems are unable to communicate. Android 4.3 devices tend to have all the necessary features, and modern desktop Linux is also fine as long as you have a Bluetooth 4.0 controller.

Bluetooth is intended as a low power communications protocol. Bluetooth Low Energy (or BLE) is even lower than that, running in a similar power range to Zigbee. Most semi-modern phones can speak it, so it seems like a pretty good choice. Obviously you lose the ability to access the device remotely, but given the track record on this sort of thing that's arguably a benefit. There's a couple of other downsides - the range is worse than Zigbee (but probably still acceptable for any reasonably sized house or apartment), and only one device can be connected to a given BLE server at any one time. That means that if you have the control app open while you're near a bulb, nobody else can control that bulb until you disconnect.

The quality of the bulbs varies a great deal. Some of them are pure RGB bulbs and incapable of producing a convincing white at a reasonable intensity[2]. Some have additional white LEDs but don't support running them at the same time as the colour LEDs, so you have the choice between colour or a fixed (and usually more intense) white. Some allow running the white LEDs at the same time as the RGB ones, which means you can vary the colour temperature of the "white" output.

But while the quality of the bulbs varies, the quality of the apps doesn't really. They're typically all dreadful, competing on features like changing bulb colour in time to music rather than on providing a pleasant user experience. And the whole "Only one person can control the lights at a time" thing doesn't really work so well if you actually live with anyone else. I was dissatisfied.

I'd met Mike Ryan at Kiwicon a couple of years back after watching him demonstrate hacking a BLE skateboard. He offered a couple of good hints for reverse engineering these devices, the first being that Android already does almost everything you need. Hidden in the developer settings is an option marked "Enable Bluetooth HCI snoop log". Turn that on and all Bluetooth traffic (including BLE) is dumped into /sdcard/btsnoop_hci.log. Turn that on, start the app, make some changes, retrieve the file and check it out using Wireshark. Easy.

Conveniently, BLE is very straightforward when it comes to network protocol. The only thing you have is GATT, the Generic Attribute Protocol. Using this you can read and write multiple characteristics. Each packet is limited to a maximum of 20 bytes. Most implementations use a single characteristic for light control, so it's then just a matter of staring at the dumped packets until something jumps out at you. A pretty typical implementation is something like:

0x56,r,g,b,0x00,0xf0,0x00,0xaa

where r, g and b are each just a single byte representing the corresponding red, green or blue intensity. 0x56 presumably indicates a "Set the light to these values" command, 0xaa indicates end of command and 0xf0 indicates that it's a request to set the colour LEDs. Sending 0x0f instead results in the previous byte (0x00 in this example) being interpreted as the intensity of the white LEDs. Unfortunately the bulb I tested that speaks this protocol didn't allow you to drive the white LEDs at the same time as anything else - setting the selection byte to 0xff didn't result in both sets of intensities being interpreted at once. Boo.

You can test this out fairly easily using the gatttool app. Run hcitool lescan to look for the device (remember that it won't show up if anything else is connected to it at the time), then do gatttool -b deviceid -I to get an interactive shell. Type connect to initiate a connection, and once connected send commands by doing char-write-cmd handle value using the handle obtained from your hci dump.

I did this successfully for various bulbs, but annoyingly hit a problem with one from Tikteck. The leading byte of each packet was clearly a counter, but the rest of the packet appeared to be garbage. For reasons best known to themselves, they've implemented application-level encryption on top of BLE. This was a shame, because they were easily the best of the bulbs I'd used - the white LEDs work in conjunction with the colour ones once you're sufficiently close to white, giving you good intensity and letting you modify the colour temperature. That gave me incentive, but figuring out the protocol took quite some time. Earlier this week, I finally cracked it. I've put a Python implementation on Github. The idea is to tie it into Ulfire running on a central machine with a Bluetooth controller, making it possible for me to control the lights from multiple different apps simultaneously and also integrating with my Echo.

I'd write something about the encryption, but I honestly don't know. Large parts of this make no sense to me whatsoever. I haven't even had any gin in the past two weeks. If anybody can explain how anything that's being done there makes any sense at all[3] that would be appreciated.

[1] typically via the bulb pretending to be an access point, but also these days through a terrifying hack involving spewing UDP multicast packets of varying lengths in order to broadcast the password to associated but unauthenticated devices and good god the future is terrifying

[2] For a given power input, blue LEDs produce more light than other colours. To get white with RGB LEDs you either need to have more red and green LEDs than blue ones (which costs more), or you need to reduce the intensity of the blue ones (which means your headline intensity is lower). Neither is appealing, so most of these bulbs will just give you a blue "white" if you ask for full red, green and blue

[3] Especially the bit where we calculate something from the username and password and then encrypt that using some random numbers as the key, then send 50% of the random numbers and 50% of the encrypted output to the device, because I can't even

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Syndicated 2016-07-07 22:38:47 from Matthew Garrett

I've bought some more awful IoT stuff

I bought some awful WiFi lightbulbs a few months ago. The short version: they introduced terrible vulnerabilities on your network, they violated the GPL and they were also just bad at being lightbulbs. Since then I've bought some other Internet of Things devices, and since people seem to have a bizarre level of fascination with figuring out just what kind of fractal of poor design choices these things frequently embody, I thought I'd oblige.

Today we're going to be talking about the KanKun SP3, a plug that's been around for a while. The idea here is pretty simple - there's lots of devices that you'd like to be able to turn on and off in a programmatic way, and rather than rewiring them the simplest thing to do is just to insert a control device in between the wall and the device andn ow you can turn your foot bath on and off from your phone. Most vendors go further and also allow you to program timers and even provide some sort of remote tunneling protocol so you can turn off your lights from the comfort of somebody else's home.

The KanKun has all of these features and a bunch more, although when I say "features" I kind of mean the opposite. I plugged mine in and followed the install instructions. As is pretty typical, this took the form of the plug bringing up its own Wifi access point, the app on the phone connecting to it and sending configuration data, and the plug then using that data to join your network. Except it didn't work. I connected to the plug's network, gave it my SSID and password and waited. Nothing happened. No useful diagnostic data. Eventually I plugged my phone into my laptop and ran adb logcat, and the Android debug logs told me that the app was trying to modify a network that it hadn't created. Apparently this isn't permitted as of Android 6, but the app was handling this denial by just trying again. I deleted the network from the system settings, restarted the app, and this time the app created the network record and could modify it. It still didn't work, but that's because it let me give it a 5GHz network and it only has a 2.4GHz radio, so one reset later and I finally had it online.

The first thing I normally do to one of these things is run nmap with the -O argument, which gives you an indication of what OS it's running. I didn't really need to in this case, because if I just telnetted to port 22 I got a dropbear ssh banner. Googling turned up the root password ("p9z34c") and I was logged into a lightly hacked (and fairly obsolete) OpenWRT environment.

It turns out that here's a whole community of people playing with these plugs, and it's common for people to install CGI scripts on them so they can turn them on and off via an API. At first this sounds somewhat confusing, because if the phone app can control the plug then there clearly is some kind of API, right? Well ha yeah ok that's a great question and oh good lord do things start getting bad quickly at this point.

I'd grabbed the apk for the app and a copy of jadx, an incredibly useful piece of code that's surprisingly good at turning compiled Android apps into something resembling Java source. I dug through that for a while before figuring out that before packets were being sent, they were being handed off to some sort of encryption code. I couldn't find that in the app, but there was a native ARM library shipped with it. Running strings on that showed functions with names matching the calls in the Java code, so that made sense. There were also references to AES, which explained why when I ran tcpdump I only saw bizarre garbage packets.

But what was surprising was that most of these packets were substantially similar. There were a load that were identical other than a 16-byte chunk in the middle. That plus the fact that every payload length was a multiple of 16 bytes strongly indicated that AES was being used in ECB mode. In ECB mode each plaintext is split up into 16-byte chunks and encrypted with the same key. The same plaintext will always result in the same encrypted output. This implied that the packets were substantially similar and that the encryption key was static.

Some more digging showed that someone had figured out the encryption key last year, and that someone else had written some tools to control the plug without needing to modify it. The protocol is basically ascii and consists mostly of the MAC address of the target device, a password and a command. This is then encrypted and sent to the device's IP address. The device then sends a challenge packet containing a random number. The app has to decrypt this, obtain the random number, create a response, encrypt that and send it before the command takes effect. This avoids the most obvious weakness around using ECB - since the same plaintext always encrypts to the same ciphertext, you could just watch encrypted packets go past and replay them to get the same effect, even if you didn't have the encryption key. Using a random number in a challenge forces you to prove that you actually have the key.

At least, it would do if the numbers were actually random. It turns out that the plug is just calling rand(). Further, it turns out that it never calls srand(). This means that the plug will always generate the same sequence of challenges after a reboot, which means you can still carry out replay attacks if you can reboot the plug. Strong work.

But there was still the question of how the remote control works, since the code on github only worked locally. tcpdumping the traffic from the server and trying to decrypt it in the same way as local packets worked fine, and showed that the only difference was that the packet started "wan" rather than "lan". The server decrypts the packet, looks at the MAC address, re-encrypts it and sends it over the tunnel to the plug that registered with that address.

That's not really a great deal of authentication. The protocol permits a password, but the app doesn't insist on it - some quick playing suggests that about 90% of these devices still use the default password. And the devices are all based on the same wifi module, so the MAC addresses are all in the same range. The process of sending status check packets to the server with every MAC address wouldn't take that long and would tell you how many of these devices are out there. If they're using the default password, that's enough to have full control over them.

There's some other failings. The github repo mentioned earlier includes a script that allows arbitrary command execution - the wifi configuration information is passed to the system() command, so leaving a semicolon in the middle of it will result in your own commands being executed. Thankfully this doesn't seem to be true of the daemon that's listening for the remote control packets, which seems to restrict its use of system() to data entirely under its control. But even if you change the default root password, anyone on your local network can get root on the plug. So that's a thing. It also downloads firmware updates over http and doesn't appear to check signatures on them, so there's the potential for MITM attacks on the plug itself. The remote control server is on AWS unless your timezone is GMT+8, in which case it's in China. Sorry, Western Australia.

It's running Linux and includes Busybox and dnsmasq, so plenty of GPLed code. I emailed the manufacturer asking for a copy and got told that they wouldn't give it to me, which is unsurprising but still disappointing.

The use of AES is still somewhat confusing, given the relatively small amount of security it provides. One thing I've wondered is whether it's not actually intended to provide security at all. The remote servers need to accept connections from anywhere and funnel decent amounts of traffic around from phones to switches. If that weren't restricted in any way, competitors would be able to use existing servers rather than setting up their own. Using AES at least provides a minor obstacle that might encourage them to set up their own server.

Overall: the hardware seems fine, the software is shoddy and the security is terrible. If you have one of these, set a strong password. There's no rate-limiting on the server, so a weak password will be broken pretty quickly. It's also infringing my copyright, so I'd recommend against it on that point alone.

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Syndicated 2016-06-21 23:11:54 from Matthew Garrett

Be wary of heroes

Inspiring change is difficult. Fighting the status quo typically means being able to communicate so effectively that powerful opponents can't win merely by outspending you. People need to read your work or hear you speak and leave with enough conviction that they in turn can convince others. You need charisma. You need to be smart. And you need to be able to tailor your message depending on the audience, even down to telling an individual exactly what they need to hear to take your side. Not many people have all these qualities, but those who do are powerful and you want them on your side.

But the skills that allow you to convince people that they shouldn't listen to a politician's arguments are the same skills that allow you to convince people that they shouldn't listen to someone you abused. The ability that allows you to argue that someone should change their mind about whether a given behaviour is of social benefit is the same ability that allows you to argue that someone should change their mind about whether they should sleep with you. The visibility that gives you the power to force people to take you seriously is the same visibility that makes people afraid to publicly criticise you.

We need these people, but we also need to be aware that their talents can be used to hurt as well as to help. We need to hold them to higher standards of scrutiny. We need to listen to stories about their behaviour, even if we don't want to believe them. And when there are reasons to believe those stories, we need to act on them. That means people need to feel safe in coming forward with their experiences, which means that nobody should have the power to damage them in reprisal. If you're not careful, allowing charismatic individuals to become the public face of your organisation gives them that power.

There's no reason to believe that someone is bad merely because they're charismatic, but this kind of role allows a charismatic abuser both a great deal of cover and a great deal of opportunity. Sometimes people are just too good to be true. Pretending otherwise doesn't benefit anybody but the abusers.

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Syndicated 2016-06-07 03:33:02 from Matthew Garrett

Your project's RCS history affects ease of contribution (or: don't squash PRs)

Github recently introduced the option to squash commits on merge, and even before then several projects requested that contributors squash their commits after review but before merge. This is a terrible idea that makes it more difficult for people to contribute to projects.

I'm spending today working on reworking some code to integrate with a new feature that was just integrated into Kubernetes. The PR in question was absolutely fine, but just before it was merged the entire commit history was squashed down to a single commit at the request of the reviewer. This single commit contains type declarations, the functionality itself, the integration of that functionality into the scheduler, the client code and a large pile of autogenerated code.

I've got some familiarity with Kubernetes, but even then this commit is difficult for me to read. It doesn't tell a story. I can't see its growth. Looking at a single hunk of this diff doesn't tell me whether it's infrastructural or part of the integration. Given time I can (and have) figured it out, but it's an unnecessary waste of effort that could have gone towards something else. For someone who's less used to working on large projects, it'd be even worse. I'm paid to deal with this. For someone who isn't, the probability that they'll give up and do something else entirely is even greater.

I don't want to pick on Kubernetes here - the fact that this Github feature exists makes it clear that a lot of people feel that this kind of merge is a good idea. And there are certainly cases where squashing commits makes sense. Commits that add broken code and which are immediately followed by a series of "Make this work" commits also impair readability and distract from the narrative that your RCS history should present, and Github present this feature as a way to get rid of them. But that ends up being a false dichotomy. A history that looks like "Commit", "Revert Commit", "Revert Revert Commit", "Fix broken revert", "Revert fix broken revert" is a bad history, as is a history that looks like "Add 20,000 line feature A", "Add 20,000 line feature B".

When you're crafting commits for merge, think about your commit history as a textbook. Start with the building blocks of your feature and make them one commit. Build your functionality on top of them in another. Tie that functionality into the core project and make another commit. Add client support. Add docs. Include your tests. Allow someone to follow the growth of your feature over time, with each commit being a chapter of that story. And never, ever, put autogenerated code in the same commit as an actual functional change.

People can't contribute to your project unless they can understand your code. Writing clear, well commented code is a big part of that. But so is showing the evolution of your features in an understandable way. Make sure your RCS history shows that, otherwise people will go and find another project that doesn't make them feel frustrated.

(Edit to add: Sarah Sharp wrote on the same topic a couple of years ago)

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Syndicated 2016-05-19 23:52:33 from Matthew Garrett

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