This 'scary' hardware hack won PennApps XIII - Technical.ly Philly

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Jan. 25, 2016 12:10 pm

This ‘scary’ hardware hack won PennApps XIII

RAMEAR's hack called into question whether your data — online or off — is ever really safe.
PennApps winners RAMEAR pose with judge Kevin Hale (right) at the closing ceremony.

PennApps winners RAMEAR pose with judge Kevin Hale (right) at the closing ceremony.

(Photo courtesy of PennApps)

Kevin Hale, from Y Combinator and cofounder of Wufoo, was the last judge standing by the end of PennApps’ snow-filled weekend. He had only one comment for RAMEAR, the first of 10 teams to present at the hackathon’s final showcase: “Thank you for sharing with us this very scary hack.”

Thirty minutes later, it would be Hale who announced RAMEAR as the first-place winners of the 13th edition of PennApps, the ever-growing hackathon organized by Penn students.

Let’s just say RAMEAR earned it: The complicated hardware hack pulled off by the team seemed like a call back to the basic ethos of hackathons — to the idea of doing something for the sake of seeing if you could do it.

Here’s the deal:

The RAMEAR hack involved taking old desktop computer (an Ubuntu PC) and turning it into a wireless data transmitter. The catch? The computer wasn’t hooked up to anything one usually uses for data transmission. There was no ethernet cable, no WiFi, no Bluetooth.

Instead, RAMEAR developed a code to use the radio frequency power of the “data bus” of the computer — the 128 wires connecting the RAM and the CPU — to transmit data wirelessly. The data was picked up using a bladeRF, a “Software Defined Radio (SDR) platform designed to enable a community of hobbyists, and professionals to explore and experiment with the multidisciplinary facets of RF [radio frequency] communication.” Once the second computer received the RF data from the bladeRF, a Python script written by the team decoded it.

For a hackathon that has gotten increasingly glossy in recent years, the level of nerdery exhibited by RAMEAR is heartening. (For an even more technical description of what the project accomplished in 36 hours, check out the team’s devpost here.)

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Despite the somewhat serious, black-hat implications of the project — i.e., you can be disconnected and still be broadcasting your digital data — the members of RAMEAR were dedicated to having fun. Developing something they could turn into a company was not part of the program.

“I joined [team RAMEAR] because I saw a post from Tom on Facebook looking for a laid-back group, not interested in winning,” explained Rob Roy Fletcher, laughing as he held his first place prize pack after the closing ceremony.

The Penn graduate student in physics joined Emrehan Tüzün, a senior from Turkey, and Tom Hartley and Fu Yong Quah, both students from Imperial College London, to finish out the team.

On the whole, PennApps seemed to settle right back into its original home base after last year’s massive experiment at the Wells Fargo Center. This weekend’s hackathon hosted about 1,300 hackers, featured 173 finished projects and encountered no real issues with the blizzard. Hackers simply cancelled travel plans had a place to stay at Penn.

One of this year’s biggest new initiatives, according to PennApps Head of Outreach and Travel Devesh Dayal, was a success as well. A “Hacker Guru” program was designed to place more experienced hackers in individual teams as mentors for the weekend. Forty such gurus took part in the program.

“More than once, we saw Hacker Guru teams onstage during the final prize ceremony on Sunday,” explained Dayal in an email, “and everyone we spoke to loved the unique experience.”

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