Safe Hacking

Hector writes:

Ah, the world of computers. Thanks to the wonderful world of bits and bytes, we can experiment with any application, file, driver, or even the core operating system. Rip them apart, change things, put them together, and if it doesn’t work, just try again. At worst, you’ll have to wipe your hard drive and start over. If you somehow manage to destroy a computer purely through bad software, that’s considered a design problem and a true feat to pull off. Just think about it: what other profession or hobby lets you experiment as much as you want and make as many mistakes as you want without having to spend a cent if you do something wrong?

Unfortunately, things have changed. Ever since the advent of embedded devices with upgradable firmware, people have been trying to modify and hack them. These devices are usually a lot less resilient than their bigger, older siblings. Many of the new shiny gadgets that we use every day are internally fragile and a slight software mishap can render them non-functional, a “brick”.

This is a guide for developers and hackers who work on system firmware for embedded devices.

He outlines several key points that are worth thinking about. Among them:

  • Care About Your Users:

The first step towards safe hacking is to develop a deep appreciation towards your users and, especially, their hardware. Most users are clueless and entirely dependent on you to guide them towards a safe result.

  • Understand the System

Before you start working on software that makes permanent changes to a device, you should have a deep enough understanding of its operation. Reverse engineer the boot process. Understand what parts of the firmware depend on what. Know what components are vital for boot, and what recovery modes are available, if any.

  • Fail Intelligently

If a critical operation fails, the worst possible thing you can do is panic the application or otherwise halt! Then you’re guaranteed to brick the device. Instead, drop the user into some kind of failsafe mode, shell, or launcher, and direct them to keep the device powered on and seek immediate attention (e.g. on an IRC channel).

  • Protect Users from Themselves

Users will do completely stupid things. It’s not just that they will click on things without understanding what the outcome will be; if you include a big red button that says “Brick Me!”, someone will click it too. That’s why you should at least make it hard for users to destroy their system.

  • Test

Ideally, you’ve put enough effort into making sure your application is safe. However, the unexpected can and does happen, and sometimes you will not have the resources to perform a comprehensive enough test. So gather up a few people that you can trust and who are willing to risk it, and perform a closed test. Do not release a public beta! People are way too impatient, and public betas are essentially synonymous with a release; people will ignore any warnings attached.

Excellent advice from a guy who knows what’s up.

Adafruit publishes a wide range of writing and video content, including interviews and reporting on the maker market and the wider technology world. Our standards page is intended as a guide to best practices that Adafruit uses, as well as an outline of the ethical standards Adafruit aspires to. While Adafruit is not an independent journalistic institution, Adafruit strives to be a fair, informative, and positive voice within the community – check it out here:

Join Adafruit on Mastodon

Adafruit is on Mastodon, join in!

Stop breadboarding and soldering – start making immediately! Adafruit’s Circuit Playground is jam-packed with LEDs, sensors, buttons, alligator clip pads and more. Build projects with Circuit Playground in a few minutes with the drag-and-drop MakeCode programming site, learn computer science using the CS Discoveries class on, jump into CircuitPython to learn Python and hardware together, TinyGO, or even use the Arduino IDE. Circuit Playground Express is the newest and best Circuit Playground board, with support for CircuitPython, MakeCode, and Arduino. It has a powerful processor, 10 NeoPixels, mini speaker, InfraRed receive and transmit, two buttons, a switch, 14 alligator clip pads, and lots of sensors: capacitive touch, IR proximity, temperature, light, motion and sound. A whole wide world of electronics and coding is waiting for you, and it fits in the palm of your hand.

Have an amazing project to share? The Electronics Show and Tell is every Wednesday at 7pm ET! To join, head over to YouTube and check out the show’s live chat – we’ll post the link there.

Join us every Wednesday night at 8pm ET for Ask an Engineer!

Join over 36,000+ makers on Adafruit’s Discord channels and be part of the community!

CircuitPython – The easiest way to program microcontrollers –

Maker Business — “Packaging” chips in the US

Wearables — Enclosures help fight body humidity in costumes

Electronics — Transformers: More than meets the eye!

Python for Microcontrollers — Python on Microcontrollers Newsletter: Silicon Labs introduces CircuitPython support, and more! #CircuitPython #Python #micropython @ThePSF @Raspberry_Pi

Adafruit IoT Monthly — Guardian Robot, Weather-wise Umbrella Stand, and more!

Microsoft MakeCode — MakeCode Thank You!

EYE on NPI — Maxim’s Himalaya uSLIC Step-Down Power Module #EyeOnNPI @maximintegrated @digikey

New Products – Adafruit Industries – Makers, hackers, artists, designers and engineers! — #NewProds 7/19/23 Feat. Adafruit Matrix Portal S3 CircuitPython Powered Internet Display!

Get the only spam-free daily newsletter about wearables, running a "maker business", electronic tips and more! Subscribe at !

No Comments

No comments yet.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.