More Research, More Fun – I’m now an Assistant Professor

Are you interested in this area of research? If you’ve followed some of my work you know I enjoy a combination of fundamental research & hands-on practical experiences.

It led me to co-found NewAE Technology Inc out of my PhD, with the objective of taking some of the research I was doing and pushing it ever further out into the world. I’m going to be continuing that work as C.T.O., but at the same time taking a leap forward in building up a larger research group under an academic affiliation.

I’ve joined Dalhousie University as an assistant professor in the electrical & computer engineering department. This is a bit of a unique position as I’m also going to be helping with some of the new innovation work being done in the “IDEA Building”, which means I’ll be mandated (and thus have time) to work with companies interested in cyber-security (emphasizing the sort of cyberphysical work I do, like IoT and automotive).

I’ll be shortly looking for students as well – if you are interested in a MASc or PhD in this area, I’d love to hear from you! Get in touch with my Dalhousie email (COFLYNN – AT – DAL.CA), if you don’t hear back sometimes I’m travelling quite a bit so may be slow, so please follow up to make sure I didn’t drop it. Or say hello at a conference – I’ll be at RECON and Black Hat in the next few months.

More details & update on this to come, but it’s an exciting chance for me to continue pushing the fundamental research I love, while engaging the local start-up community and helping encourage students that starting a business out of research isn’t such a bad idea.

Nova Scotia Embarrassment –

Just a quick post to have someone with the text. In case you aren’t aware, Nova Scotia’s “Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy” (FOIPOP) system allows you to request various information from the government, including information about yourself. When you request information about yourself it’s not redacted (i.e., your SIN and other information they have would be in the document), but when you request it about someone/something else information is redacted to protect their privacy.

They were serving these documents using a system with URLs like “”, where the last number was the document. Which is fine until they decided to use this for both the sensitive and non-sensitive one, with no log-in or password checks. To a point, these documents were automatically indexed by Google and other services, as they didn’t even put a ROBOTS.txt is seems.

Evan D’Entremont has a great write-up, so I’ll just refer you there for details.

While somebody downloaded documents they “weren’t supposed to”, and they are now claiming he is a hacker. Note most of the documents accessed were public, and there was no way to tell them apart based on URL (so it’s not even an attempt at hacking). The following is my open letter to the province regarding this silliness:

April 17, 2018

The Honourable Stephen McNeil, Premier of Nova Scotia

Re: Nova Scotia handling of FOIPOP information leak

I’m writing to you with considerable alarm regarding the response to the exposure of confidential information via the FOIPOP portal. In particular, I am greatly alarmed by the handling of an individual accessing a public government website.

It is clear the document storage and display system was designed for public documents only, as no attempt was made to authorize or validate the user. I can only assume this was a miscommunication about the intended use of this particular document storage system, as many of the documents appear on Google and other archives. Notably, even the most basic web configurations have a list of non-public directories which search engines such as Google will not access out of courtesy. There is no authentication or lock on these pages eith­er, but the fact that no attempt was made to prevent such access clearly points to this being a publicly accessible document repository.

Attempts to claim this was somehow a “hack” or even “vulnerability exploitation” do not pass muster. Neither do explanations make sense that this is a case of someone stealing an unlocked bicycle, and thus they have still done something wrong. Rather this is a case of someone (hint – not the person that had their house stormed) leaving sensitive documents in the library stacks, and someone else finding them while looking through the books. They were placed in a public location without any access control – the “attacker” simply picked them up from this public space. In fact, in this case the sensitive documents even had the same labeling and numbering system as the public books on the shelf. They are completely indistinguishable until you look at the contents.

Despite this, the person finding the documents is being aggressively handled, and a story being created that is attempting to spin them into the antagonist. Heavy-handed attempts at pursuing “computer crime” have been widely recognized as being counter-productive of achieving a more productive and secure society – even when some actual crime may have occurred (which in itself appears questionable for the case at hand).

On one hand, the government is claiming they want to encourage investment and growth of technology in Nova Scotia. Cyber-security in particular has been recognized as a particular growth area of importance to Canada, with the latest federal budget spending $1 billion on cybersecurity. But the handling of this case sends a crystal-clear message to potential researchers and entrepreneurs that Nova Scotia is not somewhere you want to be, as they are still working under long disproven and outdated cyber-security enforcement tactics.

I do not believe the current outcome was malicious, but the result of many levels of confusion, miscommunication, and attempts to divert blame. Ultimately this miscommunication resulted in Halifax Regional Police conducting a raid under the pretense that a computer crime occurred.

There is still some hope of salvaging Nova Scotia’s reputation and future ability to attract critical cyber-security talent from across Canada and the world. This would require a frank admission of the failures within the government (this does not require scapegoating any specific employee), while also outlining remediation steps to provide justice for the “hacker”, and a plan to prevent such heavy-handed reactions from occurring in the future (such as some level of expert validation of computer crime complaints). Regaining public trust regarding handling of sensitive data involves additional work, but I believe the first three items outlined are the most time-critical for the matter at hand.


Colin O’Flynn, Ph.D.

C.T.O., NewAE Technology Inc.


MeatBag PnP – Simple Pick-n-Place

Have you ever hand-built a PCB prototype with lots of parts? If so you’ll know the annoyance of hand-building something from a big stack of Digi-Key parts. Having to Ctrl-F the part value in the design, and dealing with hits on both top & bottom side. Instead I’m introducing Meat-Bag Pick-n-Place, which helps you the human meatbag become a PnP machine! Here’s a photo of it running:

You can either click on an item, and it finds the first hit of it (i.e., click on a 200-ohm resistor) and shows you. You can then use spacebar to move through the placement list. It also interfaces to barcode scanners so you can just scan Mouser or Digikey bags. Here’s a short video demo:



All this is posted on the GitHub Repo, so hopefully you find it useful!

Breaking Electronic Door Locks Like You’re on CSI: Cyber – Black Hat 2017 Talk

This year at Black Hat I’m presenting some short work on breaking electronic door locks. This talk focuses on one particular residential door lock. There was a bit of a flaw in the design, where the front panel/keypad can be removed from the outside.

Once the keypad is off, you have access to a connector that goes into the rear side of the device. You can then make a cool “brute force” board, which was basically the point of this presentation. Finally you can have something that looks like your movie electronic lock hacking mechanism, completed with 7-segment LED displays:

This little device does the following:

  • Emulates the front-panel keyboard.
  • Sends a number of guesses into the lock in quick succession.
  • Resets the backend lock to bypass the timeout mechanism when too many wrong guesses are put in.

The last part of the attack is the one that makes this a “vaguely useful” attack. The reset process is a little slow, but fast enough you could brute-force the 4-digit code in about 85 mins.

If you wanted to replace the external keyboard (so the owner didn’t know you were playing with it), it’s potentially possible but it requires very good conditions at best (i.e., good lighting, good angle, proper tools). For my demos I’ve added some restraints around the connector to make it more stationary such I can replace the keyboard without these tools.

As you can image, any “real” attacker is likely to use existing entry methods (bypass door, drill lock, kick down etc) instead of this slow/exotic attack. Despite this low risk the vendor is working on a fix. It sounds to be a VERY robust fix too, this isn’t a small change to stop only my specific board/attack either.

Hopefully this talk helps show various design teams about where people might be probing their products. Sometimes it’s just a little change in perspective is all it takes. Design engineers are often in the mindset of “design within given parameters”, but attackers are going to be looking outside of those design specs for weaknesses. Once you give the design engineer the perspective of considering the front-panel removable & a hostile environment for example, they may come up with all sorts of other attacks I didn’t think of (and thus will improve the products to prevent this).

Ultimately I think it will help consumers win, since they can be more confident that important products (such as these electronic locks) are at least as strong as an old mechanical lock.

PhD Thesis Finally Done

If you’ve seen my presentations anytime over the past few years, you’ll know the introduction about “PhD Student at Dalhousie University finishing ‘soon'” has been the claim for the past several years. Finally ‘soon’ actually happened!

You can see my complete thesis entitled “A Framework for Embedded Hardware Security Analysis” on the DalSpace website. It’s been a ton of fun doing the PhD, and I’ve had a lot of help over the years which I’ve very grateful for. For the foreseeable future I’ll be continuing to spin up NewAE Technology Inc., and keeping my ChipWhisperer project alive.

Philips Hue, AES-CCM, and more!

This is just a quick blog post to update you on some rather interesting research that will be coming out led by Eyal Ronen. At Black Hat USA 2016 I did some teardown of the Philips Hue system, and described the possibility of a lightbulb worm.

Check this landing page which now has a draft PDF of what that became. This draft paper details how you can (1) recover the encryption keys used to encrypt the firmware updates, and thus encrypt/sign your own images, and (2) details a bug specific to a version of a range-checking protocol which allows reflashing of bulbs over longer distances. The end result is this basically solves all the roadblocks I had identified as stopping the lighbulb worm from actually happening [NB: the distance-check bug has been FIXED already in firmware updates which solves this specific spreading vector].

To me the most interesting part is a demonstration of side-channel power analysis being useful for breaking a rather good encrypted bootloader. To be clear the Philips Hue does a great job of implementing a bootloader on an IoT device… it’s one of the better I’ve seen, especially considering we are talking about a lightbulb. But it’s very very difficult to hide from side-channel power analysis and other “hands on” embedded hardware attacks, instead it’s better (but more expensive logistically) to push the solutions to the higher-level architecture. If each bulb had a unique encryption key (maybe derived from the MAC address using an algorithm on a secure server if you don’t want to store all those keys) it would provide an excellent layer of defense.

I’m working on making a description of the AES-CCM attack, which will be posted to the wiki page.


Q: What does that mean to someone using Hue, is it safe?

A: Philips released a OTA update to fix the bug that allows spreading over longer distances (October 3rd update). This is a great example of a fast response by a company who takes this stuff seriously. Basically – if I was choosing a smart light platform, I’d probably use Hue (I have a few of them in my house too).


Q: What’s power analysis?

A: This isn’t a FAQ type answer – but you can see an intro video I made. Basically we use tiny variations in power consumption of a device as it’s running to determine information about secrets held within the device.


Q: What if I want more information?

A: Please contact Eyal for more details, if you want to discuss specific questions, etc. Note the Philips-specific details (such as scripts, keys, etc) will never be released, please don’t ask for them.


Q: Does a worm exist?

A: NO. It would be extremely reckless to make such a worm, as it would be VERY hard to contain the spread should you have a bunch of Hue devices around you. Instead that research paper demo’d all the pieces, but stopped short of putting them together (we wouldn’t want a criticality accident).

Philips Hue – R.E. Whitepaper from Black Hat 2016

At Black Hat 2016 I presented on some reverse engineering of the Philips Hue (also see my other post about getting root on it, which was part of that presentation).

If you were at the talk, you would have also seen mention that you’ll want to keep your eyes out for future publications by Eyal Ronen. You can see his website for more research related to the Hue as well, and follow him on twitter @eyalr0. He’s been doing some work in parallel that I think will do more than just R.E. the bulbs (as I did), and actually bring some of my `possible’ attacks to become real proof-of-concepts.

Summary of the work (to make it clear):

  • I did NOT make a worm. The title was a question someone asked me, and the talk is about the security of the Hue.
  • The mention of a possible ‘Long Range Take Over’ was new/unreleased research by Eyal Ronen – do not credit me with that. It’s part of a larger research publication that will get released at some point.
  • Philips did a rather good job (all things considered). The only trade-off I really call out is reuse of encryption keys across all FW updates for all devices, which is basically what makes a theoretical worm possible.
  • Rooting the Hue (earlier post) is a local attack and very nice for hardware hackers. There are unique root passwords which is a great security step, so far I haven’t found flaws in the Hue Bridge 2.0 besides that.
  • There’s a lot of “interesting vectors” which the talk goes over. Given enough time some of them may give, but it’s a question of who is motivated enough to spend a lot of time on them.

You can get the full slides here too:

Philips Hue Reverse Engineering (BH Talk ‘A Lightbulb Worm?’) Slides [PDF, 8MB]

Here’s a copy of the very large whitepaper I wrote too:

Philips Hue Reverse Engineering (BH Talk ‘A Lightbulb Worm?’) Whitepaper [PDF, 5MB]

This whitepaper is a bit of a ‘data dump’ and ~48 pages of random stuff. But useful if you are interested in pushing this further!

Black Hat Slides – PIN-Protected HD Enclosure / MB86C311A Research

This is a quick post to link to slides from my Black Hat USA 2016 work.

This work stands directly on the work done by Joffrey Czarny & Raphaël Rigo presented at last year (2015). They discovered the issues w.r.t. the stream-mode cipher being used by all manufactures on the MB86C311A, and the fact that secrets are stored on the HD itself. Their work is available at:

They have some newer work coming out which looks to be very interesting, so please keep your eyes out for that. Anyway onto my stuff. The following is a link to my slides:

Brute-Forcing Lockdown Harddrive PIN Codes [Slides]


Getting Root on Philips Hue Bridge 2.0

This post will briefly show you how to get a root console on the new Philips Hue Bridges (the square ones). It’s rather easy, the only special tools you require are a USB-Serial cable & a torx screwdriver.


There’s a video with full details, this post is just the specifics if you don’t want a very boring walk-through:

  1. For the serial cable (a standard 3.3V type one, DO NOT use a 5V cable), there is a 6-pin header along the bottom. Pin ‘1’ has a square footprint, and counting from pin 1 the connections are:
    Pin 1 = GND
    Pin 4 = RX In (connect to TX Out of your serial cable)
    Pin 5 = TX Out (connect to RX in of your serial cable).


  2. The bottom left-corner of the 2-row header is GND. You’ll have to short that with a wire to the following test point:

    This test-point is shorted to GND with a paper-clip or wire. Click image for full-sized to see in better detail.
  3. To get the system working, check you are getting boot messages. Now, restart the system and after you get a bit of output, short the pin. You might see some output like this:
    U-Boot 1.1.4 (Sep  8 2015 - 04:08:21)
    bsb002 - Honey Bee 2.0DRAM:  
    Honey Bee 2.0
    ath_ddr_initial_config(195): (16bit) ddr2 init
    tap = 0x00000003
    Tap (low, high) = (0x8, 0x22)
    Tap values = (0x15, 0x15, 0x15, 0x15)
    64 MB
    Top of RAM usable for U-Boot at: 84000000
    Reserving 214k for U-Boot at: 83fc8000
    Reserving 192k for malloc() at: 83f98000
    Reserving 44 Bytes for Board Info at: 83f97fd4
    Reserving 36 Bytes for Global Data at: 83f97fb0
    Reserving 128k for boot params() at: 83f77fb0
    Stack Pointer at: 83f77f98
    Now running in RAM - U-Boot at: 83fc8000
    Flash Manuf Id 0xc8, DeviceId0 0x40, DeviceId1 0x13
    flash size 0MB, sector count = 8
    Flash: 512 kB
    *** Warning *** : PCIe WLAN Module not found !!!
    In:    serial
    Out:   serial
    Err:   serial
    Net:   ath_gmac_enet_initialize...
    Fetching MAC Address from 0x83febe80
    Fetching MAC Address from 0x83febe80
    ath_gmac_enet_initialize: reset mask:c02200 
    Scorpion ---->S27 PHY*
    S27 reg init
    : cfg1 0x800c0000 cfg2 0x7114
    eth0: 00:03:7f:11:20:ce
    athrs27_phy_setup ATHR_PHY_CONTROL 4 :1000
    athrs27_phy_setup ATHR_PHY_SPEC_STAUS 4 :10

    Which will then fall back to a prompt:


    Good news! We can now get everything working for you. You can print the existing variables if you wish:

    ath> printenv
  4. Set a boot delay such we can enter the menu without the boot hack:
    setenv bootdelay 3

    Check it works with

    printenv bootdelay

    and confirm you get a line like this:


    Finally, save the setting with:


    You can now reset the system (use the ‘reset’ command), and confirm there is a count-down that gives you time to hit “enter” and get this prompt again.

  5. Now let’s fix the root password. Before doing this, I suggest you keep a copy of the old value:
    printenv security

    This would let you restore things back to default. Then the following will set the root password to ‘toor’:

    setenv security '$1$3vGNd7Q3$ISqFeo1VkmQV6nyriUV0V/'

    You may have to copy this into notepad first to ensure it all fits on one line! The quotes are critical here. Again check it works with printenv, then type saveenv to store things to disk.

    If you want your own password, simply use the ‘mkpasswd’ command in Linux to generate an appropriate string.

    NOTE: My original instructions (and the video) had a different ‘setenv’ command, which used SHA1 to hash the password. It turns out this stops ssh from working, so instead as suggested in the comments you can use the above MD5 hash which should work better. For posterity my original instructions were:

    setenv security '$5$wbgtEC1iF$ugIfQUoE7SNg4mplDI/7xdfLC7jXoMAkupeMsm10hY9'
  6. Once again reset the board – assuming you used saveenv, that root password will be used by the system now. You should be able to log in with root/toor!
  7. Once you are in, there’s a few changes you’ll want to make. We’ll edit the file /etc/rc.local:
    # vi /etc/rc.local

    And add the following:

    iptables -I INPUT -p tcp --dport 23 --syn -j ACCEPT

    This will open the telnet port & start the daemon on boot. Write the file and quit with :wq. You may also want to add the /etc/rc.local to the /etc/sysupgrade.conf file to avoid it being overwritten in the future.

    See the comments below – someone found a way to get ‘dropbear’ to allow root login too. It’s great as SSH is much nicer to work with than telnet! This requires a different password hash than my original instructions/video.

  8. Try using telnet to connect now. You can find the IP of the bridge using ifconfig, but you can also get it through the Hue app.You can also try using “Philips-hue.local”, which I’d first check via ping to see if it resolves:
    ping Philips-hue.local
  9. I’ve done the 25-July-2016 update without issue too (after first rooting the hub with an earlier version). I’ll continue to update this as updates happen.

BONUS – How did I figure this out?

The “bomb out to uboot prompt” is a known bug. Once in the prompt, I could edit the bootarg command with this:

setenv std_bootargs 'board=BSB002 console=ttyS0,115200 ubi.mtd=overlay rootfs=/dev/mtdblock:rootfs rootfstype=squashfs noinitrd init=/bin/sh';

This gives me a shell which doesn’t require a login. But many things are broken/disabled in this mode. It was however enough to find that there is another script that runs on startup which uses the uboot env variable, and copies it into the shadow file for the root password.

With this knowledge it’s easy to use mkpasswd to make an appropriate shadow file entry. Easy!

I also checked with two different Hue Bridge v2.0 devices. They contained different root passwords (at least different salts). I’ve been told the root passwords are indeed unique per device, which is a good step to stop someone from attacking your virgin Philips Hue 2.0 bridge.

As an interesting note – other people have also discovered this independently of me. Between writing this post & actually linking it from anywhere (i.e., so you could actually find it) pepe2k figured out the same thing on a forum post.

As well someone else did this same “overwrite root” attack already, but had used an external programmer to write the FLASH memory chip:

So it’s worth considering that many devices may be broken even if there isn’t some fancy Black Hat talk or otherwise. Most of the attacks (such as this one) are fairly well-known and pretty basic.

UPDATE: At DEFCON 24, I guess someone gave this type of attack a marketable name. You can see the idea called pin2pwn here.

A Low-Cost X-Y Scanner using 3D Printer

This summer, our summer intern Greg d’Eon made a quick project to build a X-Y Scanner from a 3D printer (by ‘quick’, I mean it took him less than 2 days!). You can see the source code up on GitHub. Anyway, 3D printers are very nice as they have fairly high resolution and fairly low cost. Here’s a quick video:

We’re using it to measure EM emissions frequencies over a PCB, but you could also use this for side-channel emissions, or fault injection. While the resolution might not be high enough for getting at specific features on a chip surface, it can still be used for general positioning.

With your EM emissions, you can graph X-Y vs. amplitude – here I’ve constrained the range to get an idea where the 96 MHz emissions are concentrated. Probably more interesting would have been to use a 2D plot with colour overlaid over the PCB design:em_plotYou can also do things like plot frequency vs. position with strength of the signal given by color. In the following graph the X position is fixed, and only the Y position is varied. You can see here the 96MHz oscillator of the SAM3U microcontroller on the ChipWhisperer-Lite for example: