Friday, August 05, 2011

Scandal? Or not so much? WIRED reports, you decide.

An interesting article on Drudge today. 

It seems an enterprising hacker bought a bunch of remote control gear on Ebay for a Burning Man project.  Wanted to have an autonomous vehicle driving around amongst the thousands of people at the festival (which totally isn't totally insanely unsafe or anything, right ?)  Turns out this surplus gear was from a failed project for the Pentagon.  The company was Ionatron, they were making a machine to blow up roadside bombs with electricity.  It was supposed to be a remote controlled, semi-autonomous vehicle that tooled along the side of the road with a big bug-zapper that would basically shoot lightning at any metal object buried in the dirt.  Didn't work all that well, company went bust, now the vehicle control gear is on Ebay.

This article is from WIRED magazine, and is one of a series that just buries Ionatron, the US military and their equipment acquisition program.  Here's the outrage quote:

There was a time, not all that long ago, when the Pentagon sank tens of millions of dollars into remote-controlled lightning guns that it hoped would fry insurgent bombs before they killed any more troops. Now, disassembled parts from the one-time wonder-weapons are being sold on eBay. At least one buyer snatched up the gear, hoping to use it in his latest art project for Burning Man.

All of which would make for a funny little story, if that buyer didn't discover that the multimillion dollar "Joint  Improvised Explosive Device Neutralizers," or JINs, were kluged together from third-rate commercial electronics, and controlled by open Wi-Fi signals. In other words, the Pentagon didn't just overpay for a flawed weapon. On the off-chance the JIN ever worked, the insurgents could control it, too.

"This is the hack of all hacks," says Cody Oliver, a freelance technologist in San Francisco. "And this is what they were selling to the government? Holy shit."

More specifically, here's the details of that "Holy shit":

Oliver kept going through the strange gear he had indirectly acquired from Ionatron. The wireless router that was supposed to be mounted on the robot was a standard Linksys model, the kind that filled countless homes with Wi-Fi. There was no encryption, and no password to protect the information. Anyone could've tapped in. "All the video, all the commands, there were all in the clear, over standard 802.11 Wi-Fi," Oliver says, his voice rising.

There was one difference, though, between this Linksys router and a standard one: The tell-tale blue plastic had been removed, and the serial numbers were carefully shaved off. As if someone didn't want the government to know that they were using commercial parts.

... ooooooh, sneaky! ...

Oliver eventually dropped the idea of using the Ionatron gear for Burning Man — and not because of Parish's threat. The gear just seemed too jury-rigged. Its network detector was a wire connected to the "on" light on the front of the router.

"I just don't trust it," he says.

Ok, so the whole thrust of the article is that the prototype gear was running off an unsecured Linksys 802-11 WiFi router. The author ignores that Ionatron wasn't in the autonomous vehicle business, they were in the mine-zapping business and needed a quick-and-dirty AV to strap the zapper onto for some field tests.  Seems the Marine Corps is still testing the mine-zapper idea, they put theirs on a truck instead of a robot.  Oh, and it looks like a pair of balls.  Which is hilarious, of course.

This Noah Shachtman guy is a pretty good writer. He had me going! In truth, I was all set to post this as an outrage piece myself... until I took a look at the comments.  Its a sobering thing to realize that you're a sucker for a line of patter, and I was one right up until I read this comment:

Common practice in defense industry to use COTS products (Consumer off the shelf).  Far cheaper during prototyping than custom fabricating equipment before concept is proven.  Considering this didn't really make it out of development and into production, its not surprising it was not locked down or made with more rugged equipment.  They have to make it through proof of concept before money will be sunk into producing them with military grade equipment and then it has to make it into production before they'll start locking everything down.

This article, like most defense articles on this site, is reaching hard to find something to criticize with selective reporting or just simple ignorance of how defense development is done.

And then my brain said "duh". 

Its a hurry-up prototype of a vehicle control, NOT the finished product.  Which they surplussed and it ended up on Ebay because its a piece of crap. Some guy probably fired it together in an all-nighter so he could have something that would run and drive the next day. Like I've never done that myself.  This is a genuine "Column deadline approaching and I've got NOTHING!" kinda article.

So there you have it my friends.  Like most MSM productions these days, your WIRED subscription is a waste.  You will be dumber and less informed after reading it. 

The "almost had me" Phantom

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