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Why LXI?

June 16, 2009

lxi_logo

Why go LXI? Why not? It costs money; is it worth it?

While most major Test and Measurement companies are members of the LXI Consortium; there are a couple notables missing: Tektronix and Anritsu. Interesting in that these two work to offer solutions which solve timing and synchronization issues – especailly Tek with their latest triggering feature set in the RSA6100A Real Time Spectrum Analyzer.

Yet, you don’t hear much about users rallying for LXI so I’ve got to wonder what it really brings to the table. The consortium will only be five years old in September so maybe it’s too early to expect much.

I still often end up pointing users I consult with to good ol’ GPIB, actually GPIB+ with higher speed, especially in applications that are simply controlling instruments and returning simple data (and not much of it). The overhead required in LAN can actually slow down testing and instrument control in some cases.

What are your thoughts on LXI; is it a “must-have” on your list of test equipment specs?


Where’s My Bailout?

June 3, 2009

OK, so chances are neither you nor your company are going to get a check from the U.S. Treasury for billions of dollars but there are ways you can benefit from the economic stimulus plan (formally titled American Recovery and Reinvestment Act).

Yahoo has actually set up a web page entitled Stimulus Job Watch which highlights and updates resources as they become available. The article highlights specific careers which types of jobs will be in demand, the top one being Electrical Engineers (with median annual salaries provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics):Electrical engineers ($79,240).

To be qualified for many of these engineering jobs, you may need to be a certified “Professional Engineer” or PE.The requirements vary from state to state; here is a link to a directory to find the requirements in your state and a direct link for those of us in Oregon.

Here is a highlight of some of the career fields which economists agree are poised to see a boost as a direct or indirect result of the stimulus. These include:

Energy and Utilities. A key part of the stimulus plan is the modernization of the nation’s electrical grid. “Smart grid” jobs will include regulators hired by public utility commissions, in addition to load management engineers, meter manufacturers and systems control center operators. You can read more about the specifics of smart meters and the opportunities for engineers on my post The Short, Smart Play.

Medical Information Technology. The stimulus bill includes $19 billion for updating health information technology. This will likely create opportunities for hardware and software companies as the wireless infrastructure is updated and expanded. I certainly am seeing an increase in interest from engineers in the biomedical technology field needing to do more spectrum management as they implement wireless patient monitoring, asset location and tracking services and WiFi access while still maintaining legacy paging and radio systems in the face of new interference sources such as High Definition Broadcast Television which definitely caused problems for Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas. In fact, some companies such as Anritsu, have already developed products and training courses which focus on interference analysis in a hospital environment.

Education and Training. Many states have made cuts in their education budgets, but the stimulus plan calls for a $53.6 billion state-stabilization to help states avoid further cuts and layoffs.  The stimulus also sets aside funds for modernization of schools which are more often adopting the corporate model of utilizing e-learning. While sales leads at my company, T&M Consulting, for instructor-lead training are down slightly, the interest in developing and maintaining e-learning is growing. Specifically, there is significant interest in using inexpensive and flexible open-source tools to develop interactive product training, which is an area of expertise for our training consultants.

History and numerous studies have shown that the individuals and companies who make a strong move toward learning and growth as the economy pulls out of a recession benefit from significantly more growth then those who wallow in despair and inactivity while waiting for the “economy to stabilize”.

Feel free to share your thoughts or let me know how I can help.


Hacking the Wireless Way

April 15, 2009

James Van Bokkelen is about to be robbed. A wealthy software entrepreneur, Van Bokkelen will be the latest victim of some punk with a laptop. But this won’t be an email scam or bank account hack. A skinny 23-year-old named Jonathan Westhues plans to use a cheap, homemade USB device to swipe the office key out of Van Bokkelen’s back pocket.

“I just need to bump into James and get my hand within a few inches of him,” Westhues says. We’re shivering in the early spring air outside the offices of Sandstorm, the Internet security company Van Bokkelen runs north of Boston. As Van Bokkelen approaches from the parking lot, Westhues brushes past him. A coil of copper wire flashes briefly in Westhues’ palm, then disappears.

Van Bokkelen enters the building, and Westhues returns to me. “Let’s see if I’ve got his keys,” he says, meaning the signal from Van Bokkelen’s smartcard badge. The card contains an RFID sensor chip, which emits a short burst of radio waves when activated by the reader next to Sandstorm’s door. If the signal translates into an authorized ID number, the door unlocks.

The coil in Westhues’ hand is the antenna for the wallet-sized device he calls a cloner, which is currently shoved up his sleeve. The cloner can elicit, record, and mimic signals from smartcard RFID chips. Westhues takes out the device and, using a USB cable, connects it to his laptop and downloads the data from Van Bokkelen’s card for processing. Then, satisfied that he has retrieved the code, Westhues switches the cloner from Record mode to Emit. We head to the locked door.

“Want me to let you in?” Westhues asks. I nod.

He waves the cloner’s antenna in front of a black box attached to the wall. The single red LED blinks green. The lock clicks. We walk in and find Van Bokkelen waiting.

“See? I just broke into your office!” Westhues says gleefully. “It’s so simple.” Van Bokkelen, who arranged the robbery “just to see how it works,” stares at the antenna in Westhues’ hand. He knows that Westhues could have performed his wireless pickpocket maneuver and then returned with the cloner after hours. Westhues could have walked off with tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of computer equipment – and possibly source code worth even more. Van Bokkelen mutters, “I always thought this might be a lousy security system.”

So begins the article by Annalee Newitz of Wired Magazine which highlights a concern that has existed for years and continues to grow as everything from credit cards to utility meters and medical implants go wireless.  Having the ability to hack the wireless communication not only allows for monitoring, and stealing, of data but, in many cases, to also control the device; pretty scary when the device in question is a utility meter or, worse yet, a medical implant.

Mythbusters is one of my favorite shows on Discovery Channel. I was surprised to learn that they were recently banned by lawyers from airing an episode in which they reveal how easily an RFID device can be hacked (or, more accurately, cloned). In this clip below Adam Savage of the Mythbusters TV show explains what happened when they wanted to do a show on RFID vulnerability.


The use of AES 128 bit encryption is well known to protect devices from this type of hacking and cloning but it 1. costs more than the price of a typical commercial RFID chip to implement and 2. takes longer to authenticate, requiring the user to hold the RFID-enabled device in reading range (aka “interrogation zone”) for a longer period of time.

“But if you put [128-bit] Triple DES in there, all this would take 2 to 3 seconds—and that wouldn’t be acceptable to most consumers.”says

identify consumption in more detail than a conventional meter and communicate that information via some network back to the local utility for monitoring and billing purposes. “They also have ability to reduce load, disconnect-reconnect remotely, and interface to gas & water meters.

“This means consumer could be denied gas or water based on load or even have service disconnected all via a network.”, says Jim Matteson of Consumer Watchdog.org.

Most smart meters use a wireless protocol known as Zigbee to allow communication between the meter and a reader used by utility personnel or with a transceiver typically mounted on a nearby utility pole. While many of these meters use a very secure 128 bit encryption, they may still be subject to what is known as side-channel attack. You can read more about it as well as a documented incident of RFID side channel attack here.

RSA Security Inc. is one of the leading developers of encryption and secure business communcations. In a recent whitepaper they reported…

“The implementation of cryptographic algorithms has not received attention until recently. This was partially caused by the communication gap between system engineers and cryptographers. System engineers usually lack the deep understanding of complexities related to implementing cryptographic algorithms in a secure manner. Instead they focus on meeting vendor requirements where security is typically at the bottom of the list. At the same time, cryptographers tend to focus on the mathematics of cryptography and tend to analyze an algorithm’s security in terms of mathematical proofs and algorithmic complexity.

Therefore, side-channel cryptanalysis calls for cooperation and understanding between system engineers and cryptographers. Secure algorithms are vulnerable to simple attacks not described by mathematical models. Yet, cryptographers now understand that information channels can exist in the physical world; such channels are used to apply new or already known cryptanalysis techniques on various algorithms.”

T&M Consulting can identify the vulnerability of wireless systems to attack/cloning and consult on how to cost-effectively minimize it without sacrificing performance.  One insight I can provide is that many suspected jamming or denial-of-service attacks were actually due to unintentional interference from other wireless systems. Interference analysis is becoming increasingly  important as the spectrum gets more crowded with wireless signals.