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Hardware Hacking

From "Happy Hacking" to "Screw You" 243

Posted by CmdrTaco
from the now-we're-sad dept.
tquid writes "Trying to bridge the digital divide in Canada's poorest postal code, a principled group of hackers adopt "open source"-based technology spun off from an MIT project. Then the terms on the hardware are changed, and changed again, and then firmware to lock out the frustrated group's software is installed, screwing them out of their investment and many hours of development work."
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From "Happy Hacking" to "Screw You"

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  • by elrous0 (869638) * on Monday March 24, 2008 @09:49AM (#22844410)
    Wasn't this was originally developed as an open source project at MIT? I imagine their original agreement with MIT probably precluded this very thing (locking it down). If not, I would be very disappointed with MIT.
    • by mrvan (973822) on Monday March 24, 2008 @09:58AM (#22844494)
      If they used the MIT license they're pretty much screwed...

      It is a permissive license, meaning that it permits reuse within proprietary software ... [wikipedia.org]

  • So why not talk to Meraki and see if you can work something out rather than whining about it on your blog?
    • by Opportunist (166417) on Monday March 24, 2008 @10:40AM (#22844870)
      Have you ever tried talking technology with a lawyer? Talking nuclear physics with a pig is more rewarding.
      • by ivan256 (17499) on Monday March 24, 2008 @11:45AM (#22845480)
        There are three types of IP lawyers:

        • Good, Honest IP Lawyers - These are usually unemployed, or stuck in low paying academic jobs
        • IP lawyers which profit off the fear of their clients. These guys lie about the requirements and risks of various IP issues, charge dozens of billable hours to write copyright header comments for the company's source code, tell companies that if they run their product on Linux they'll be forced to open all the code, etc. They usually also dabble in helping companies file bogus patents.
        • IP lawyers which help their clients come up with a fake cover for their real licensing motives. That's what we have here. They generate endless legalese to try and dissuade a company's customers from behaving in a way that is inconvenient for the company.


        If you want to have a "rewarding" conversation with an IP lawyer, you need to figure out which bucket they are in so you can understand the motivation behind their selected language. If you assume "logic", or "reason" are involved you may as well just bang your head against the wall.
      • Have you ever tried talking technology with a lawyer? Talking nuclear physics with a pig is more rewarding.
        Well, sure, you get bacon out of it! :)
    • Re:So talk to them? (Score:4, Informative)

      by eokyere (685783) on Monday March 24, 2008 @10:46AM (#22844914)
      because biswas and his ilk are a bunch of cunts. if you lack background on this, well here goes:

      Meraki initially offered robustly featured indoor and outdoor nodes (which act as routers or repeaters) for $50 and $100. The plan was to allow people to become "micro" service providers in regions where cost is an issue or where broadband connections are scarce. The gear appealed to everyone from low-income housing to ISPs looking to add Wi-Fi as an added value service. Meraki quickly became a tech media and blog darling. Then last October the company suddenly unveiled a new three-tier pricing system that jacked up the price of hardware as much as three times for some users. The move bumped some of the functionality users were getting on the cheap (user authentication, billing) into higher tiers. The move annoyed users with deployed networks in the Meraki forums -- who say they were blindsided by the changes.
      http://www.dslreports.com/shownews/Open-Mesh-Picks-Up-Where-Meraki-Left-Off-92532/ [dslreports.com] i bought 12 of those 50 buck units to setup a small test project in Ghana, only to have meraki turn around and say "fuck you" to me ... so meraki, fuck you too
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by bhima (46039) *
        So now I'm curious how much work would it be to roll out an open version of the hardware? None of this sounds like it's particularly special... I say this as an software engineer (I only do embedded stuff) not as a hardware engineer. I'll bet a few grad students could whip up an equivalent board (or a daughter board for a mass produced product) in short order (particularly having an existing board to begin with).

        So... Fuck 'em if they can't take a joke and move on to a different platform.
    • by LihTox (754597) on Monday March 24, 2008 @11:15AM (#22845166)
      So why not talk to Meraki and see if you can work something out rather than whining about it on your blog?

      Because (a) now we all know* to watch out for Meraki, and (2) Meraki might be more willing to fix a public stink than a private complaint.

      *(and knowing is half the battle. GI J... oh wait. sorry.)
    • Meraki holds all the cards. They control the firmware, and they've acted in a fairly predatory manner here.

      They'll ask "why should we let you?" And they'll be (from their POV) right. Why SHOULD they let them. They're not making money off it. They don't give a shit.

      If you want to use their hardware at all, you have to give (and keep giving) them money. Either directly in payments, or indirectly by serving adds on their free tier.

      Fuck that noise.
  • Illegal? (Score:3, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday March 24, 2008 @09:55AM (#22844470)
    FTFA:

    This is expecially bad form (and probably illegal) given that their stuff was all orginally developed under an open source licence.
    How can this possibly be illegal? AFAICS it's MIT-licenced code plus some GPL v2 and there's no Tivoization clause in v2.
    • Re:Illegal? (Score:5, Informative)

      by TheLinuxSRC (683475) * <slashdot&pagewash,com> on Monday March 24, 2008 @11:09AM (#22845116) Homepage
      Software licensing isn't the issue; updating his legacy hardware which he purchased under a specific license with specific rights without his knowledge or consent is the issue. Especially when this new firmware update (which he did not authorize but was automatically applied by Meraki despite having been sold with a different EULA) effectively bricks his hardware. This raises the question - Whose hardware is it?
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by pavera (320634)
      It depends on the original EULA that they obtained the hardware/software under. Under the original license under which they obtained the hardware there was no "you cannot hack this" clause, now if the original EULA has a clause about "we can update this EULA at any time and the changes will be applied retroactively", and a court buys that that is a legally binding term (I can't believe it would, because what is to stop any proprietary company from getting a huge installed base by giving something away, and
  • Article text (Score:5, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday March 24, 2008 @09:59AM (#22844498)
    (Article loaded very slowly for me, so it will likely be slashdotted soon.)

    I've been following the development of mesh wifi technology for several years now. From the moment I first grokked what was going on with it, it struck me as a great disruptive technology. One of the most successful early projects, and one that I followed with a great deal of interest was MIT's Roofnet project [mit.edu] - an implementation of commodity hardware and open source software, built on Linux, which provides wifi coverage for MIT's campus.

    In 2006 a spin-off company named Meraki [wikipedia.org] was formed to develop and commercialize the MIT Roofnet technology. At the time I was on the board of the Vancouver Community Network [vcn.bc.ca] and had been championing more development of wireless technology. We immediately ordered 9 of the first beta units to try out. The technology was cheap ($50/unit) and it worked but what prevented us from going any further with it was the pricing model that they decided to adopt - $5/node/month for access to the "dashboard" - the real-time monitoring software that they were developing for managing the networks. We decided that this cost was prohibitive for our purposes and the Merakis were shelved.

    In September of 2007 I heard about a group of Vancouver community wifi enthusiasts who were getting together with the goal of setting up community wifi in Canada's poorest neighbourhood. I came out to a meeting and invited along some people whom I know are interested in any project that is about bridging the digital divide. The technology that was trumpeted at that meeting was Meraki. Since my previous brush with them they had changed their pricing structure and now they would let you run a free network (with free access to their dashboard) or a subscription (paid) network for 10% of your charges. We (the group, which came to call itself " FreeTheNet [freethenet.ca]") were unanimous that the free option was what we wanted to do and we quickly began building out a public network.

    In October Meraki announced that they were changing their pricing model (yet again) and that they would be vastly raising the costs of their hardware (tripling, in fact). I remember going to their website to learn more about what they were doing and their new marketing slogan was something like "Build your business using exciting new technology where the rules of the game keep changing " How ironic; I wish I'd kept a screenshot of that! Under their new system there was no way that we could build out the network we envisioned. At roughly that point, one of our most experienced hackers said "forget Meraki", we're going to write our own firmware and dashboard and promptly started researching that. By late Novermber he was able to demostrate an open routing firmware called B.A.T.M.A.N. [wikipedia.org] running with a mesh helper inside called Robin [blogin.it], that provided the same functionality as the Meraki firmware. This could be installed in the commodity Meraki hardware which greeted you with a friendly and encouraging "happy hacking" when you logged into it via the console.

    Over December and January he worked on adding features that we wanted to our network to have (and that we had previously been encouraging Meraki to build to improve their system - things like per node custom splash screen, enhancements to the dashboard to improve scalability, etc.) All of this was being tested on Meraki hardware because this is what we had spent our money on back when they supported and encouraged the kind of work we were doing.

    Then in February Meraki announced a change to their EULA (End User Licence Agreement) which precluded anyone from changing any of the software that they install on t

    • by masonc (125950) on Monday March 24, 2008 @10:11AM (#22844602) Homepage
      I talked to Meraki about using their mesh network fro a resort I wanted to equip, but when I asked what would happen to our investment if they went belly up, they told me it the network hardware would be unusable if that happened. I said thanks but that's not acceptable.
      Who would walk a client into that sort of scenario? How many bright hopeful startups have we seen disappear without a mention? It's not like they would ever be honest and tell you they are running low on cash.
      I wouldn't mind if their service was value added, billing or accounting or something, but the network could still be used in the event they vanished. If the hardware was open and I could install a Open Source version later, I might have done it.
      Maybe Meraki needs to revisit their model and look at it from a customer's viewpoint.
      • by the_humeister (922869) on Monday March 24, 2008 @11:05AM (#22845088)
        Couldn't just get a bunch of Linksys WRT 54GLs, load OpenWRT, and setup that way?
        • Couldn't just get a bunch of Linksys WRT 54GLs, load OpenWRT, and setup that way?

          This is what I thought. Although the author of the article mentioned that they couldn't find an alternative, I would certainly be curious to see if anyone can provide a working alternative, commercial or otherwise. I am sure while 'Meraki' might be larger arse-holes than g**tse.cx, I am sure they would change their approach if there was good competition.
      • by PCM2 (4486)

        I asked what would happen to our investment if they went belly up, they told me it the network hardware would be unusable if that happened.

        A little one-sided there, methinks. After all, the money you would have given them would still work just fine. This business deserves to fail in the marketplace.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday March 24, 2008 @10:05AM (#22844552)

    I learn that my failure is due to the fact that Meraki has automatically updated the software on all of the units (including legacy, such as ours)
    Didn't you say you wrote your own firmware? Why didn't you disable the auto-update? Did your original agreement allow them to change the software without your confirmation, or worse, did it force you to give them access to your hardware for this purpose? Why don't you use a bunch of WRT54gs with OpenWRT or the Freifunk firmware [freifunk.net]?
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward
      Probably because, at the time, the Meraki hardware was cheaper than WRT54gs and already came with the relevant software installed.
    • by Quarters (18322)
      Given that that the article, in the sentences directly preceding the one you quoted, mention the author was attempting to push the custom firmware onto the boxes it's not hard to infer that he was attempting to do this to boxes that hadn't received their firmware yet.
  • Let everyone know (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday March 24, 2008 @10:09AM (#22844578)
    Their wiki article has no Controversy section. It needs one. I strongly suggest that someone who was abused by them edit the wiki article setting out the case. Given their hippie like idealistic looking web site, I would have to accuse them of hypocrisy at least.
  • by Registered Coward v2 (447531) on Monday March 24, 2008 @10:19AM (#22844684)
    IANAL, but it sounds like time for them to find a nice CDN lawyer who would do some pro-bono work to see if they have grounds for legal action. It would seem to me tha a "Tortuous interference" claim might be valid; given the actions appear to interfere with the owners of the hardware's ability to provide services as a result of the update.
  • EULA doesn't apply (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward
    How does a EULA apply to hardware? Unless they're leasing the hardware there's no license involved.
  • by MichaelCrawford (610140) on Monday March 24, 2008 @10:30AM (#22844776) Homepage Journal
    Canada's poorest neighborhood is known as the Downtown Eastside. I used to work in nearby Gastown.

    I found the contrast between most of Vancouver, which is otherwise one of Canada's most prosperous cities, and the Downtown Eastside so stark as to be completely overwhelming. There was a time when I had been one of the urban unfortunates myself, as I have a mental illness that was at one time quite severe.

    I became determined to help those that I could, often buying meals for those who asked me for spare change. But it got to be more than I could bear; the stress of it put me back in the mental hospital - I was brought to St. Paul's hospital on Burrard by an ambulance, where I stayed for three weeks in their Two-South Mental Health ward.

    I discuss Vancouver, and many of those who I met there, in my weblog The Vancouver Diaries [vancouverdiaries.com]. That is, the entries before June 30th, 2007, when I moved back to the US. I kept blogging at the site, as I intend to go back someday, but for now I live in Silicon Valley.

    I have to say, that the company that remotely installed this firmware, breaking their project, why they have to be worse than The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. I don't think I have in my entire life met so many people who are so unfortunate as the residents of the Downtown Eastside. I hope they have a change of heart.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by elrous0 (869638) *
      Dan Rather did a recent profile of this neighborhood on his "Dan Rather Reports" show on HDNET. I never know such places existed in Canada, but there are bad neighborhoods everywhere I guess. Still, I've seen a lot worse in the U.S. I used to live near East St. Louis, and that place was more like a shelled-out DMZ than a town.
      • I never know such places existed in Canada, but there are bad neighborhoods everywhere I guess. Still, I've seen a lot worse in the U.S. I used to live near East St. Louis, and that place was more like a shelled-out DMZ than a town.

        One of the reasons the Downtown Eastside is the poorest neighbourhood in Canada and has tens of thousands of junkies is climate: one can survive most weather most of the year. Another is its status as Terminal City (no pun, really), since if you keep going west (or south) you wind up there. It's a regional sink, for British Columbia (and the prairies too), a vast vast area.

        The sudden surge in crystal meth use (speed, to you old timers) across the country contributes hugely to the problem. Recently I was

    • by Otter (3800)
      I had a journal entry [slashdot.org] about Vancouver's nastiness after a business trip there a few years ago. I can't say I'm that regretful that the junkie who threw a syringe (with needle!) at me isn't going to be getting free WiFi.
  • by Thelasko (1196535) on Monday March 24, 2008 @10:31AM (#22844786) Journal
    until I read this article. My building is going condo and I am considering bringing up the concept of a building wide wireless network at our first board meeting. I am even toying with the idea of sharing with the neighboring buildings. The only commercial product I have been able to find is Meraki. Does anybody have any other suggestions?
    Please forgive my English, it's Monday.
    • I can't help on the wireless end, but you may want to consider a wired system if you can't do it. It would probably still be beneficial. I was on the board of an 18-story cooperative apartment building while in college. We ran ethernet to every bedroom and living room. Large initial capital expense, but we amortized it over several years so it came out to about a $20 person/month rent increase. This was when people were paying more than that for AOL dial-up.

      So, I guess I'm not doing much more than offering
    • by dch24 (904899)
      You can always try out www.locustworld.com [locustworld.com], though I've never used their hardware.

      Your best bet may be a Linksys WRT54GL [openwrt.org].
    • by qw0ntum (831414) on Monday March 24, 2008 @11:47AM (#22845496) Journal
      Check Open Mesh [open-mesh.com]. Just like Meraki, but open.
      • by Thelasko (1196535)
        Open Mesh appears to be just what I am looking for. The only thing that concerns me is the Open Mesh hardware appears to be Meraki hardware with OSS. Are they buying Meraki routers, hacking them, and reselling them? Will Open Mesh suffer the same fate as the author of this article, or do they have a separate supply chain?
        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by qw0ntum (831414)
          Nope! Their nodes are from Accton, independently produced. And unbranded, too. They actually run on the same Atheros chipset that the Meraki nodes and the Fonera nodes use, so performance is very similar. Also, ROBIN will run on several other hardware platforms. Take a look at the ROBIN forums [forumup.it] to see what other platforms people have gotten it to run on.
  • by qw0ntum (831414) on Monday March 24, 2008 @10:48AM (#22844932) Journal
    This decline was something people have foreseen for a while. There is a rapidly maturing collection of open source projects to create a real open source Meraki replacement (disclaimer: I am helping develop one of these).

    ROBIN [blogin.it] is an open source mesh firmware that can run on reflashed Meraki nodes (well, I don't think it's "allowed" by Meraki anymore, since they've changed their license agreement to forbid 3rd party firmware and have made it really difficult to access the bootloader).

    Open-Mesh [open-mesh.com] is the dashboard management service that ROBIN nodes are configured to use. The guy who develops this actually started working on this dashboard when Meraki was still Roofnet - compare the Open-Mesh dashboard to the Meraki dashboard, the similarity is obvious. Also, you can buy pre-flashed, fully featured ROBIN nodes from Open-Mesh.com for $50 each, the same price that Meraki sells their crippled "standard version" of their nodes.

    OrangeMesh, is an open-source version of the dashboard being developed that will allow you to host your own dashboard server, completely freeing you from reliance on any third party. You can check out it's progress here. [googlecode.com]
  • by FlyingGuy (989135) <<flyingguy> <at> <gmail.com>> on Monday March 24, 2008 @11:36AM (#22845386)

    summary I have seen on /. to date!"

    "Trying to bridge the digital divide in Canada's poorest postal code, a principled group of hackers adopt "open source"-based technology spun off from an MIT project. Then the terms on the hardware are changed, and changed again, and then firmware to lock out the frustrated group's software is installed, screwing them out of their investment and many hours of development work."

    I guess our beloved Cmd Taco has bever heard of the basic Who, What, Where, When of writing an article.

  • Community Wireless Communications [civicwifi.com] is working on its second city-wide wifi project, the first being a major success in Lawrence, Kansas [lawrencefreenet.org].
  • I call shenanigans! (Score:4, Informative)

    by radagenais (1261374) on Monday March 24, 2008 @11:51AM (#22845552)
    Did anyone read TFA?

    Meraki patched a not-for-profit group's hardware from remote without permission so that it would no longer run the firmware same not-for-profit developed in-house. They did this to hardware that was BSD licensed when purchased. They either employed a backdoor or abused known customer access credentials (likely the former) to do it.

    This is probably illegal and certainly wrong.

    (TFA doesn't say if a contract was in play between Meraki and the client that would have authorized them to apply the patches, but its clear that the customer had put an end to the agreement so a complaint against Meraki would be legit.)

    At the very least, this is a malicious hack against a customer. But I think its more than that.

    If the peeps in Vancouver were left to continue their work, they certainly would have had a "competitive" solution which they would likely have offered up online for all to use. This would effectively make them a competitor, and a dangerous one because unhappy Meraki customers would be the most likely to check it out. I would go so far to say that this was a pre-emptive sabotage (with poor Vancouverites in the crossfire).


    I have no problem with Meraki adapting their business model to find something that works. But their actions way overstepped the boundaries of the law. They would have been wiser to handle the whole affair in a more benevolent fashion in the first place. They could have, for example, cut a partnership deal with the non-profit to allow them to participate in feature development under NDA and enjoy a subsidized service. Both parties would have come out winners.

    Whenever financiers get involved, they always want to lock up the tech because it is the only tangible asset they can claim ownership of. Meanwhile, they miss the essence of business value, which is in the people and the partnerships and the innovation.

    I think that the only way community wifi is going to work is if it is community-run, not-for-profit, and vendor independent. There is no question that we will have this soon enough and it will be running on top of WRTs and other similar APs which are abundant and cheap and have loads of after-market conversion options for outdoor use. I'm disappointed to read all these comments bashing the Vancouver hackers, who deserve kudos for their inventiveness, determination, and good will.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by RAMMS+EIN (578166)
      ``I think that the only way community wifi is going to work is if it is community-run, not-for-profit, and vendor independent.''

      There, I emphasized that, because I think it's the most important part. Whoever runs the operation, there is always a chance that they will turn against you. Not being dependent on them lowers the chance that they will and leaves you free to find an alternative if they still do. Vendor-independence is a Good Thing everywhere, not just for community wifi.
  • Reflashing Merakis (Score:5, Informative)

    by sbrsb (233569) on Monday March 24, 2008 @12:37PM (#22846154) Homepage
    The article suggests that a Meraki software upgrade has made it impossible to reflash them.

    Actually, you can still easily make them revert to an earlier version which can be reflashed.

    As described here:
    http://robin.forumup.it/about99-15-robin.html [forumup.it]

    "you can ssh into the Meraki and create edit the /storage/config.local file with whatever you want; in my case:
    Code:
    echo "firmware.mips.version 6-9163" > /storage/config.local"

    And they'll update themselves to an earlier version.

    The founders of Meraki have made huge contributions to open source software and it is good to see that others are taking advantage of their great work and making further improvements.
  • This is why I never feel comfortable with 'updates', unless I've vetted them first.

    FTA and the linked blog, it appears the firmware update was pushed by the manufacturer, therefore didn't have to happen. I'm not blaming the people affected here as in principle, you may want to receive security updates etc. as a matter of course.

    But personally I'm finding more and more that 'updates' often regress the performance of a product due to unnecessary flash new features and political modifications you'd neve

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