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Avoiding Commitment

How engineers are playing the field with low-cost high-tech Software Defined Radios

Haters gonna hate. And players gonna play. I’m not sure if those are Newton’s Laws but they feel like unavoidable realities. You feel me? I’m not sure you do. Perhaps I should tell you a little story.

If I were to mention Captain Krunch, I’m sure the first thing that would pop in your head is most likely memories of yellow cereal that would leave your upper pallet raw. What I guarantee does not come to mind is a sorta notorious hacker from the 1970s, and how his enthusiasm for dial tones has reverberations to modern technology and the war in Ukraine.

John Draper, or as he was known to his colleagues, Captain Crunch, or Crunch, or Crunchman, became famous in the 1970s when a small group of telephone enthusiasts discovered the ability to manipulate the telephone dial tones on payphones enabling them to conduct calls without having to pay a dime. As the number of “phone phreaks,” as they came to call themselves, increased, they began creating the first instances of group calls, chat rooms, and the first arrests for hacking.

In addition to the phone phreaks, other amateur engineers and technologists used HAM radios to intercept radio communications from across the world. These individuals did not work for government intelligence agencies, instead, they were just enthusiasts in their homes, cultivating antenna farms and harvesting lost radio communications.

In a similar fashion to Captain Krunch, HAM radio operators draw from a pedigree of obsessive curiosity with ambient radio communications. Despite their hobby grade equipment, HAM radio operators also discovered new ways to gather information about the events of the world. And one such individual, Mickey Gurdus, used his HAM radio to intercept everything from plane hijackings, Soviet weapons exchanges, and even the invasion of Iraq during the Gulf War before his death a few years ago. The most amazing aspect is that he did all these things from the comfort of his own home using radio configurations that he collected in the High Frequency (HF) radio range as they bounced across the globe due to optimal ionic dispersion.

Ettus B200 Mini SDR and Yagi Antenna… and a Leatherman… and a laptop…and solder….and an RC car.

Today, there is another arrow in the phone phreak’s quiver—the Software Defined Radio. Having first grown in popularity in the early 2000s, brands like HAK RF give the masses the ability to tune radios to a wide range of radio signals without having to adjust hardware configurations. This is revolutionary because, in the past, every time a radio required a specific frequency configuration, the entire hardware setup needed to be revised and programmed. Software Defined Radios, costing as low as a few hundred dollars, made these technologies available to the masses.

And, as the excitement of the SDR grew, so did innovation. SDR hackers eventually connected one of these SDRs to the internet. Why is this monumental? Well, WebSDRs, as they are known, allow the masses to intercept radio communications the exact same way that Captain Krunch and Mickey Gurdus did. The only difference is that instead of collecting long-range radio communications, these WebSDRs allow a user in South America to tune an SDR in Europe to collect radio waves and eavesdrop from across the globe. It is so effective that the online community had to issue a warning for citizens operating near the Russian border because some ended up getting arrested by the Russian government for espionage.

So, what does all this have to do with Ukraine? Well, some of these WebSDRs are still in place. Anyone can log into them to tune the radios to any band the SDR is capable of collecting. We don’t need to wait for #Anyonymous to hack Russia’s satellites, we could all find a way to get in the action. This is public knowledge. It’s also a double-edged sword. If people with good intentions can get in, so can everyone else. That’s some serious James Bond action if you ask me.

If you want to learn other ways that SDRs are changing the sexy world of the RF engineer, check out The Hawk Enigma, and join Voodoo as he gets in on the action and lets his phreak flag fly.

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J.L. Hancock
J.L. Hancock

Drawing from a graduate level education in national security studies, foreign language expertise, and experience as a technician embedded with special operations forces, J.L. Hancock writes fiction that reflects the complexities of the modern world. His eye for detail and authentic narrative is rooted in the many lives he has lived, the worlds he has seen, and the people who inspire him.