Blocking Google Glass, Drone, and Wireless Microphone Snoops: Cyborg Unplug


Cyborg Unplug

In The Diamond Age, Or, A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer, the 1995 sci-fi novel by Neal Stephenson, denizens surrounded themselves with clouds of nanotech devices to protect against surveillance and attack. We are not there yet, but with advent of devices like Google Glass, drones and wireless microphones, the era of pervasive surveillance is fast-dawning. Already many restaurants and bars have taken to banning Google Glass to protect the privacy of their patrons.

Now a new company, Cyborg Unplug, allows people to block, not just ban, wifi-connected surveillance devices. How does it work? Many establishments offer free open wifi services to customers, students, and workers. Cyborg Unplug kicks selected surveillance devices off the wifi network. As Cyborg Unplug explains:

Every wireless (WiFi) device has a unique hardware signature assigned to it by the manufacturer. These signatures are broadcasted by wireless devices as they probe for, connect to and use wireless networks.

Cyborg Unplug sniffs the air for these signatures, looking for devices its owner has selected to ban. If a banned device is discovered an alarm is triggered (LED, audio or message*). Further, if that device is found to be connected to a network that Cyborg Unplug is trained to guard, a stream of special 'de-authentication' signals (packets) are sent to disconnect it. It does this automatically, without any interaction required from its owner.

* Due to technical limitations, alarm features may be restricted to the high-priced model.

The inventors assert that Cyborg Unplug is legal since the owners of wifi networks have the right to block connections to devices they don't want. They also explain that it is not jammer which blocks radio bands by flooding them with electronic noise.

On the other hand, Cyborg Unplug offers two settings: Territory Mode and All Out Mode. As the inventors observe:

The recommended mode is Territory Mode, disconnecting target devices from selected network(s) owned and operated by the user. The other mode is All Out Mode, which disconnects all detected target devices from any network they are associated with, including paired connections with smartphones. Please note that this latter mode may not be legal within your jurisdiction. We take no responsibility for the trouble you get yourself into if you choose to deploy your Cyborg Unplug in this mode.

Users operating in All Out Mode, could run afoul of the Feds. As Betabeat reports:

In the FCC's own, unambiguous words:

We remind and warn consumers that it is a violation of federal law to use a cell jammer or similar devices that intentionally block, jam, or interfere with authorized radio communications such as cell phones, police radar, GPS, and Wi-Fi.

On a personal note: My college friends and I often reflect upon how thankful we are that we did not live in an era with ubiquitous cell phone cameras. Just saying.

Addendum: See my colleague Jesse Walker's insightful article, "Your Right to Call Your Girlfriend Ends Where My 900-Seat Cinerama Begins," on the law and etiquette of jamming cell phones in movie theaters.

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  1. Clearly what we need are scramble suits.

  2. On a personal note: My college friends and I often reflect upon how thankful we are that we did not live in an era with ubiquitous cell phone cameras.

    Yeah buddy. Some classmates and I were just reminiscing on this recently.

    Curious, Ron – when were you in college? I graduated in ’88 (supposed to be ’84, but I dropped out and learned about real life for a few years before finishing). The Golden Age of College – no AIDS, unprotected sex all day, pot/hash/acid/booze. Plus, you know, class and all the book learnin’ and everything.

    PS On topic – that’s a damned cool device. Over/under on how many weeks till the gummint bans it??

    1. I was going to ask for the over/under on how many weeks until the gummit mandates it in “public” places.

  3. And lo, the market provideth.

    As a longtime supporter of private cellphone jammers in movie theaters, I find this an exciting innovation. The all-out mode will appeal to trolls and assholes of every stripe and is unlikely to endure except in heavily altered form, but just being able to dictate which devices connect to a private network available for customers is a huge step toward accommodating privacy concerns without top-down interference.

    1. You can bet police will use this in all-out mode to prevent people from uploading video of police encounters.

      1. Seems like it would only do that if using WiFi. Doesn’t sound like it can block cell service.

      2. From what I can tell this device disrupts network and bluetooth connections, but not cell connections, not that I understand anything about the technical distinction. But the technology for police to disrupt cell connections has been around for a long time just as it has for movie theaters. I wonder why some audacious departments haven’t tried implementing it–it’s not like public outrage has ever stopped them from implementing any other blatant abuses.

        1. It blocks by MAC Address, 802.11 or bluetooth. AFAIK, my cell phone doesn’t have a MAC address on the Cell network, it has an ESN.

        2. Wifi is incredibly easy to block by deploying a promiscuous device that essentially interrupts the device asking for a connection.

          Cisco Wireless Control system had this feature built into it. This appears to be an affordable non-enterprise version of the same thing.

    2. As a longtime supporter of private cellphone jammers in movie theaters

      We went though this conversation years ago here, and from my perspective, it’s been at least 15 years since someone with a cell phone caused a problem in a movie. I haven’t heard a cell phone ring in a theater since the mid 90s when they first started to become ubiquitous.

      1. Uh, it’s been more like 4 months for me. It didn’t ring, but that didn’t stop him from talking on it.

  4. I want. If for no other reason than the excuse to say, “Deploy the cyborg!”

    1. “Deploy the cyborg” is the new “Release the Kraken”

  5. Oooh, an opportunity to get on another, completely new list! Sign me up!

  6. Without “All-Out Mode”, I suspect you’re just wasting your time. You can’t give any assurances of privacy without it, after all.

    If the FCC reg actually bans All-Out Mode, which disconnects a single device from both your network, and from the user’s little mini-network (their phone) or whatever other network they may be attached to. If blocking a subcategory of devices from attaching to a network is a violation, then I don’t see how even “Territory Mode” is allowed. I don’t see any distinction in the FCC reg between networks you host, and networks you don’t.

    1. Territory mode stops a mobile user from connecting to an access point you own.

      All out mode interferes with connections between mobile users and access points you don’t own.

      Seems like a clear distinction to me.

      1. Sure, but I don’t see that distinction in the FCC reg. Do you?

        1. “authorized radio communications” might fit.

          To FedGov, the most important part of regulation is how open it is to speciousness. They’ll let court precedents sort it out.

          1. Yeah, if the owner of the network doesn’t want your device connected to it, I wouldn’t call that “authorized radio communications”.

        2. Blocking unauthorized devices (white listing or black listing) is a standard security practice in the unlicensed spectrum used by WiFi.

  7. My college friends and I often reflect upon how thankful we are that we did not live in an era with ubiquitous cell phone cameras.

    It’s nice to see Ronald Bailey hasn’t let his death derail his writing career.

  8. SD: Well, writing clearly isn’t required for my career evidently – implied – when I was drinking excessively, drugging a bit, and so forth back in college.:-)

    1. You know, living.

  9. EMP it from orbit, that’s the only way to be sure.

  10. this device will be useless if i have google glas and my own network.

    Yea, starbucks may kick me out of their network, however, starbucks can’t kick me off of my network.

  11. I don’t suppose anyone bothered to tell them how easy it is to spoof a MAC address?

    1. Was about to post the same thing. This will work on some casual users, but no one motivated.

  12. Every wireless (WiFi) device has a unique hardware signature assigned to it by the manufacturer.

    Well, yes.

    Yes it would. For this to happen however the device used for spying would have to be ‘rooted’ or running alternative firmware. This is not only often very difficult (in some cases practically impossible on tiny embedded devices), it’s also something hardware manufacturers generally discourage, voiding warranty. As such we consider altered hardware addresses to be a fringe case.

    It won’t be a fringe case the second people start ever using your product, I assure you.

    More importantly, MAC address randomization is a feature in new systems; iOS8 will do it [optionally, I think?] to stop MAC-based marketing tracking.

    This product is DOA even for the non-“fringe”, non-motivated use-case, pretty much now.

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