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Home » Top Hacker Shows Us How It’s Done by Pablos Holman (Full Transcript)

Top Hacker Shows Us How It’s Done by Pablos Holman (Full Transcript)

Pablos Holman

Here is the full text and summary of Pablos Holman’s talk titled “Top Hacker Shows Us How It’s Done” at TEDxMidwest conference. 

Listen to the MP3 Audio here:


So this is a hotel room, kind of like the one I’m staying in. I get board sometimes. A room like this has not a lot to offer for entertainment. But for a hacker, it gets a little interesting because that television is not like the television in your home, it’s a node on a network. Right? That means I can mess with it. If I plug a little device like this into my computer, it’s an infrared transceiver, I can send the codes that the TV remote might send and some other codes.

So what? Well, I can watch movies for free. That doesn’t matter to me so much, but I can play video games too.

Hey, but what’s this? I can not only do this for my TV in my hotel room, I can control your TV in your hotel room. So I can watch you if you’re checking out with one of these, you know, TV based registration things, if you’re surfing the web on your hotel TV, I can watch you do it. Sometimes it’s interesting stuff. Funds transfer. Really big funds transfers. You never know what people might want to do while they’re surfing the web from their hotel room.

The point is I get to decide if you’re watching Disney or porn tonight. Anybody else staying at the Affinia hotel?

This is a project I worked on when we were trying to figure out the security properties of wireless networks; it’s called the Hackerbot. This is a robot we’ve built that can drive around and find Wi-Fi users, drive up to them and show them their passwords on the screen.

We just wanted to build a robot, but we didn’t know what to make it do, so — We made the pistol version of the same thing. This is called the Sniper Yagi. It’s for your long-range password sniffing action, about a mile away I can watch your wireless network.

This is a project I worked on with Ben Laurie to show passive surveillance. So what it is, is a map of the conference called Computers, Freedom and Privacy. And this conference was in a hotel, and what we did is we, you know, put a computer in each room of the conference that logged all the Bluetooth traffic. So as everybody came and went with their phones and laptops we were able to just log that, correlate it, and then I can print out a map like this for everybody at the conference.

This is Kim Cameron, the Chief Privacy Architect at Microsoft. Unbeknownst to him, I got to see everywhere he went. And I can correlate this and show who he hangs out with (phone dialing) when he got board, (phone dialing) hangs out in the lobby with somebody. Anybody here use cellphones?

(Phone ringing)

So my phone is calling–


calling —

Voice mail: You have 100 messages.

Pablos Holman: Uh oh!

Voice mail: First unheard message —

Pablos Holman: Where do I press —

Voice mail: Message skipped. First skipped message.

Pablos Holman: Uh oh!

Voice mail: Main menu. To listen to your– You have pressed an incorrect key — You have two skipped messages. Three saved messages. Goodbye.

Pablos Holman: Uh oh! So we’re in Brad’s voice mail. And I was going to record him a new message, but I seem to have pressed an invalid key, so we’re going to move on. And I’ll explain how that works some other day because we’re short on time.

Anybody here used MySpace? MySpace users? Oh! Used to be popular. It’s kind of like Facebook. This guy, a buddy of ours Samy, was trying to meet chicks on MySpace which I think is what it used to be good for. And what he did is he had a page on MySpace about him. It lists all your friends, and that’s how you know somebody’s cool is that they have a lot of friends on MySpace.

Well, Samy didn’t have any friends. He wrote a little bit of Javascript code that he put in his page, so that whenever you look at his page it would just automagically add you as his friend. And it would skip the whole acknowledgement response protocol saying “Is Samy really your friend?”

But then it would copy that code onto your page, so that whenever anybody looked at your page it would automatically add them as Samy’s friend too. And it would change your page to say that “Samy is your hero.” So in under 24 hours, Samy had over a million friends on MySpace. Hey, he just finished serving 3-years probation for that.

Even better, Christopher Abad, this guy, another hacker, also trying to meet chicks on MySpace but having spotty results. Some of these dates didn’t work out so well, so what Abad did is he wrote a little bit of code to connect MySpace to Spam Assassin, which is an open source spam filter. It works just like the spam filter in your email. You train it by giving it some spam, train it by giving it a little bit of legitimate email, and it tries to use artificial intelligence to work out the difference. Right?

Well, he just trained it on profiles from girls he dated and liked as legitimate email. Profiles from girls he dated and not liked, as spam, and then ran it against every profile on MySpace. Out spits girls you might like to date. What I say about Abad is, I think, there’s like three startups here. I don’t know why we need, when we can have Spam dating? You know this is innovation. He’s got a problem, he found a solution.

Does anybody use these — bleep — keys for opening your car remotely? They’re popular in, well, maybe not Chicago, Okay. So kids these days will drive through a Wal-Mart parking lot clicking open, open, open, bloop. Eventually you find another Jetta or whatever just like yours, maybe a different color, that uses the same key code. Kids will just loot it, lock it up and go. Your insurance company will roll over on you because there’s no evidence of a break-in. For one manufacturer we figured out how to manipulate that key so that it will open every car from that manufacturer. There is a point to be made about this which I barely have time for, but it’s that your car is now a PC, your phone is also a PC, your toaster, if it is not a PC, soon will be. Right? And I’m not joking about that.

And the point of that is that when that happens you inherit all the security properties and problems of PCs. And we have a lot of them. So keep that in mind, we can talk more about that later. Anybody use a lock like this on your front door? Okay, good. I do too.

This is a Schlage lock. It’s on half of the front doors in America. I brought one to show you. So this is my Schlage lock. This is a key that fits the lock, but isn’t cut right, so it won’t turn it. Anybody here ever tried to pick locks with tools like this? All right, got a few, few nefarious lock pickers. Well, it’s for kids with OCD. You’ve got to put them in there, and finick with them, spend hours getting the finesse down to manipulate the pins. You know, for the ADD kids in the house there’s an easier way. I put my little magic key in here, and put a little pressure on there to turn it, smack it a few times with this special mallet and I just picked the lock. We’re in. It’s easy.

And in fact, I don’t really know much more about this than you do. It’s really, really easy. I have a keychain I made of the same kind of key for every other lock in America. And if you’re interested, I bought a key machine so that I can cut these keys and I made some for all of you guys. So my gift to you, come afterwards and I will show you how to pick a lock and give you one of these keys you can take home and try it on your door.

Anybody used these USB thumb drives? Yeah, print my Word document, yeah! They’re very popular. Mine works kind of like yours. You can print my Word document for me. But while you’re doing that, invisibly and magically in the background it’s just making a handy backup of your My Documents folder, and your browser history and cookies and your registry and password database, and all the things that you might need someday if you have a problem. So we just like to make these things and litter them around at conferences.

Anybody here use credit cards? Oh, good! Yeah, so they’re popular and wildly secure. Well, there’s new credit cards that you might have gotten in the mail with a letter explaining how it’s your new “Secure credit card”. Anybody get one of these? You know it’s secure because it has a chip in it, an RFID tag, and you can use these in Taxicabs and at Starbucks, I brought one to show you, by just touching the reader. Has anybody seen these before? Okay, who’s got one? Bring it on up here. There’s a prize in it for you. I just want to show you some things we learned about them. I got this credit card in the mail. I really do need some volunteers, in fact, I need one, two, three, four, five volunteers because the winners are going to get these awesome stainless steel wallets that protect you against the problem that you guessed, I’m about to demonstrate.

Bring your credit card up here and I’ll show you. I want to try it on one of these awesome new credit cards. Okay.

Do we have a conference organizer, somebody who can coerce people into cooperating? It’s by your own volition because — This is where the demo gets really awesome, I know you guys have never seen —

[Question Inaudible]

What’s that? They’re really cool wallets made of stainless steel.

Anybody else seen code on screen at TED before? Yeah, this is pretty awesome. OK, great I got volunteers.

So who has one of these exciting credit cards? OK, here we go. I’m about to share your credit card number only to 350 close friends. Hear the beep? That means someone’s hacking your credit card. OK, what did we get? Valued customer and the credit card number and expiration date. It turns out your secure new credit card is not totally secure.

Anybody else want to try yours while you’re here?

Male Audience: Can you install overdraft protection?

Pablos Holman: Beep, let’s see what we got? So we bitched about this and AMEX changed it, so it doesn’t show the name anymore. Which is progress. You can see mine, if it shows it. Yeah, it shows my name on it, that’s what my Mom calls me anyway. Yours doesn’t have it.

Anyway, so next time you get something in the mail that says it’s secure, send it to me.

Oh wait, one of these is empty, hold on. I think this is the one, yep, here you go. You get the one that’s disassembled. All right, cool.

I still have a few minutes yet left, so I’m going to make a couple of points. Oh, shit. That’s my subliminal messaging campaign. It was supposed to be much faster.

Here’s the most exciting slide ever shown at TED. This is the protocol diagram for SSL, which is the encryption system in your web browser that protects your credit card when you’re sending it to Amazon and so on. Very exciting, I know, but the point is hackers will attack every point in this protocol, right? I’m going to send two responses when the server’s expecting one. I’m going to send a zero when it’s expecting a one. I’m going to send twice as much data as it’s expecting. I’m going to take twice as long answering as it’s expecting. Just try a bunch of stuff. See where it breaks. See what falls in my lap.

When I find a hole like that then I can start looking for an exploit. This is a little more what SSL looks like to hackers, that’s really boring. This guy kills a million Africans a year. It’s Anopheles stephensi mosquito carrying malaria. Is this the wrong talk? This is a protocol diagram for malaria. So what we’re doing in our lab is attacking this protocol at every point we can find. It has a very complex life cycle that I won’t go into now, but it spends some time in humans, some time in mosquitoes and what I need are hackers. Because hackers have a mind that’s optimized for discovery. They have a mind that’s optimized for figuring out what’s possible. You know, I often illustrate this by saying, if you get some random new gadget and show it to your Mom, she might say, “Well, what does this do?” And you’d say “Mom, it’s a phone.” And instantly, she’d would know exactly what it’s for.

But with a hacker, the question is different. The question is “What can I make this do?” I’m going to take all the screws out, and take the back off, and break it into a lot of little pieces. But then I’m going to figure out what I can build from the rubble. That’s discovery, and we need to do that in science and technology to figure out what’s possible. And so in the lab what I’m trying to do is apply that mindset to some of the biggest problems humans have. We work on malaria, thanks to Bill Gates, who asked us to work on it. This is how we used to solve malaria. This is a real ad from like the 40’s. We eradicated malaria in the US by spraying DDT everywhere.

In the lab what we do is a lot of work to try and understand the problem. This is a high-speed video, we have a badass video camera, trying to learn how mosquitoes fly. And you can see that they’re more like swimming in air. We actually have no idea how they fly. But we have a cool video camera so we — Yeah, it costs more than a Ferrari. Anyway we came up with some ways to take care of mosquitoes. Let’s shoot them down with laser beams. This is what happens when you put one of every kind of scientist in a room and a laser junky. So people thought it was funny at first, but we figured out, you know, we can build this out of consumer electronics. It’s using the CCD from a webcam, the laser from a Blu-ray burner, the laser galvos from a laser printer. We do motion detection on a GPU processor like you might find in video game system. It’s all stuff that follows Moore’s law. So it’s actually not going to be that expensive to do it.

The idea is that we would put a perimeter of these laser systems around a building or a village and just shoot all the mosquitoes on their way in to feed on humans. And we might want to do that for your backyard. We could also do it to protect crops. Our team is right now working on characterizing what they need to do the same thing for the pest that has wiped out about two thirds of the Orange groves in Florida.

So people laughed at first. This is a video of our system working. We are tracking mosquitoes live as they fly around. Those crosshairs are put there by our computer. It just watches them, finds them moving and then it aims a laser at them to sample their wing beat frequency. Figure out from that, is this a mosquito? Is it Anopheles Stephensi? Is it female? And if all that’s true then we shoot it down with lethal laser.

So we have this working in a lab. We’re working on taking that project into the field now. All this happens at the Intellectual Ventures Lab in Seattle where I work and we try and take on some of the hardest problems that humans have.

This is the money shot. You can see we just burned his wing off with a UV laser. He’s not coming back. Kind of vaporized his wing right there, yeah. They love it. I mean, you know. Never got called by PETA or anyone else. I mean, it’s the perfect enemy. There’s just no one coming to the rescue of mosquitoes. Sometimes we overdo it.

So anyway, I’m going to get off stage. This is the Intellectual Ventures Lab where I work. Basically we use every kind of scientist and one of every tool in the world to work on crazy invention projects.


Want a summary of this talk? Here it is.


Pablos Holman’s talk titled “Top Hacker Shows Us How It’s Done” is an engaging and thought-provoking exploration of various hacking techniques and their implications. In his presentation, Holman covers a wide range of topics and demonstrates how hacking can impact our lives in unexpected ways.

  1. Hotel Room Hacking: Holman begins by showcasing how he can manipulate the TV in his hotel room using a small device, allowing him to watch movies and play video games for free. He also highlights the ability to control other guests’ TVs in the same hotel, potentially witnessing sensitive activities like funds transfers.
  2. Hackerbot and Surveillance: Holman introduces the Hackerbot, a robot designed to find Wi-Fi users and display their passwords. He discusses passive surveillance techniques, such as logging Bluetooth traffic at a conference, revealing attendees’ movements and interactions.
  3. MySpace and Social Hacking: Holman shares a story about a friend who manipulated MySpace to gain a large number of friends quickly. He emphasizes the innovative approach hackers take to solve problems, even when it involves social engineering.
  4. Car Remote Keys: Holman exposes vulnerabilities in remote car keys, demonstrating how attackers can easily break into cars with matching key codes. He underscores the increasing digitization of everyday objects and the potential security risks associated with it.
  5. Schlage Lock Picking: Holman demonstrates how easy it is to pick locks, including the commonly used Schlage lock, revealing the lack of security in everyday devices.
  6. USB Thumb Drives: Holman discusses the use of USB thumb drives as potential tools for data theft, emphasizing the need for caution when using these devices.
  7. Credit Card Security: Holman showcases the insecurity of supposedly secure credit cards with RFID chips, demonstrating how hackers can easily access sensitive information from them.
  8. SSL Protocol and Hacking: Holman explains how hackers target vulnerabilities in the SSL encryption protocol, emphasizing the importance of understanding and addressing these weaknesses.
  9. Mosquito Control: Holman’s talk takes an unexpected turn as he discusses a project to combat malaria by using lasers to shoot down disease-carrying mosquitoes. He highlights the power of interdisciplinary collaboration and creative problem-solving.
  10. Intellectual Ventures Lab: Holman concludes by introducing the Intellectual Ventures Lab, where innovative solutions to complex problems are developed by combining various scientific disciplines and cutting-edge technologies.

Overall, Pablos Holman’s talk illustrates the diverse and often surprising aspects of hacking, ranging from everyday gadgets and social manipulation to addressing global health challenges. It underscores the importance of thinking creatively and critically about technology’s impact on our lives and the need for continuous vigilance regarding security and privacy in the digital age.

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