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Unlocking the Invisible

A n00bs experience with SDR hacking

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Do we even say n00bs anymore? Is that dating me? What is it nowadays, skid? "Don't be a skid", yeah? Whatever it is, consider me that. Or consider me whatever you want. Except a hacker. I am not a hacker. I do have a fancy "security specialist" title before my name at work, but that in no way makes me an authority on anything I am about to talk about. Acknowledging the theme of this entire site, I'm an idiot who has no clue what he is doing, so take everything I say with a grain of salt. I'm simply exited about a new toy and need to try and force everyone else to read about it.

I discovered SDR a number of years ago, when playing with a police scanner I found alongside the road. If you haven't used one, they can be overwhelming to program. Most people that have them don't program them themselves because of it. Of course I can't have someone else program it for me, so I started to tinker and figure it out on my own. During the process I thought "there has to be a way to do this on my PC by now. Why are people spending so much money on these dedicated devices?" And there is. It's called SDR or Software Defined Radio.

Some quick Googling on how to listen to the police scanner on your computer will eventually land you on Amazon, where you can purchase a USB SDR device for around $30. You can get a kit for around $40. It will include a couple of antennas, some extra coax cable, and a couple different mount/stand options. For what you get, this is a really good deal. One thing to note, there are counterfeits. So make sure you are getting a legit RTL-DSR.com dongle. There is a guide on their website on how to spot the fakes and links to purchase the legitimate ones, if you are interested.

I couldn't believe how cheap these things are. A top of the line Uniden scanner will cost you around $700. There are cheaper models, but even the cheap ones will still run you $100. This is with minimal features. It might be good enough for the general public, but I am a materialistic kind of guy. More is better and I knew that once I had the radio dongle connected to my computer I would have way more than what even the $700 scanner radio would provide me with. Boy was I right.

With the dongle in hand I quickly learned, or more so confirmed that it wasn't going to be a plug and play experience. This isn't a tutorial, so I am not going to go through everything step by step, but there is a quick start guide on both rtl-sdr.com and airspy.com that will get you installed and software up and running. You'll still need to know what you're tuning into and how to tune into it, but there are a ton of YouTube videos that can teach you how to download and use SDR# or SDR++. You can figure out your specific area radio frequencies on radioreference.com. With very little time you should be able to tune right into your Police or Fire stations and listen in to what is going on. I have to say, though, find your public works departments and crank that volume. Especially on cold winter days in the Midwest, they are a blast to listen to.

That alone should bring you enough joy to cover the cost of the device and the time it takes to set it up. Of course, I couldn't leave it at that. I figured if I can listen to 2 way radios I have to be able to listen into other stuff too. That led me to air traffic and flight data and soon I was tracking planes within 100 miles of my house with a little retractable antenna that came with the $40 kit. I was amazed and of course I needed more.

Down the rabbit hole I went. Reading everything I could find on SDR. I discovered a vast world of eavesdropping, jamming and interference, hacking, spoofing, restricted access, and decoding encrypted communications. I also discovered I could capture garage door openers and even car key fob signals. The later of which piqued my interest quite a bit. Not because I want to steal cars, but I also read about how it was used to assault and kidnap people. People were jamming key fob signals so that they could prevent someone from getting into their vehicle and then abduct them. This meant I had to learn exactly how it was done and make sure I told everyone I could about it.

In order to figure out how this was done, I needed a couple more things from Amazon. Total for the parts: $4 shipped with Prime. Two days later I had a fully working vehicle key fob signal jammer and an SDR device that could not only prevent people from getting into their cars, but capture the rolling code to then use later to access their vehicle.

I spent the next few days telling everyone I could about it. All of my coworkers were rolling their eyes at me. My friends and family feigned interest out of politeness, but I did not care. I felt much better knowing that my little demonstration would be burned into the back of their head. Maybe, just maybe if they were ever in a parking lot late at night and their key fob stopped working they would remember my antics and go and look for someone to help, saving them from being attacked.

Of course my interest did not stop there. SDR opens up so many different invisible worlds that most people never even think about. TV, radio, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS and cellphone. One of my biggest interests right now is satellite signals.

I came across a YouTube video where someone used the same $40 RTL-SDR kit I started with to capture images from satellites passing over their house. On another site, I saw a post where, with just a $15 antenna, someone captured satellite signals over a 45-minute period. The information was sensitive enough that they chose not to share it publicly. This has had my mind racing non-stop since I saw it, and I can't wait for my antenna to arrive. When it does, you can bet that I'll have a dedicated post about that experience.

I can also do more dedicated posts on things, if there is any interest. Don't expect many step by step guides from me, but I definitely do not mind sharing my experiences with stuff. Maybe some one will get a kick out of it or it will start someone else's interest in a new hobby.