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  • 03.14.14

A DIY Laptop Design, So Hackers Can Play Without Getting Spied On

The open-source plans could help level the playing field with the NSA.

A DIY Laptop Design, So Hackers Can Play Without Getting Spied On

Now we know the NSA has used hardware to spy on computers, even when the computers are disconnected from the Internet. In most cases, tiny circuit boards and USB cards “must be physically inserted by a spy, a manufacturer, or an unwitting user,” reported David Sanger in The New York Times.

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It’s a basic problem with computers as appliances, built according to a distant corporation’s proprietary plan. “I think the core issue with closed hardware is that without knowledge of what the correct design should be, it’s very difficult to tell if the current instance has been tampered with or modified,” says hardware hacker Andrew “bunnie” Huang.


This is one reason Huang teamed with fellow hacker, Sean “xobs” Cross, to create an open-source laptop that any dedicated amateur can build themselves. “Since this laptop has its plans available online, if you see something suspicious you can check it out and see if it’s part of the intended design or a valid work-around, without having to do any reverse engineering work,” says Huang.

But the Novena Project, as the pair call it, isn’t for the slightly more paranoid average Joe. “I certainly hope regular consumers don’t buy this laptop,” says Huang. “It would be like a family buying a dune buggy or ATV for dropping kids off at school.”

Instead, it’s designed for hardware enthusiasts and hackers. “People who regard ‘some assembly required’ not as a warning label but as a feature,” says Huang. The hurdles to building your own computer, even with public plans, are substantial, and the machine you end up with is no Macbook. For starters, it runs Linux.

Still, part of the appeal for Huang was that it could be suitable for everyday use. When I emailed him to ask what he used it for, he responded: “I’m writing this response to you on the laptop. So, I use it to check email, for one thing.” He can also use it for spreadsheets, documents, web browsing. “And oh, it makes a heck of a code-development platform.”

In fact, he says he’s been most surprised at the Interest from the hacker community, with whom the appeal is both technical and aesthetic. “I’m surprised that the very homebrew look of the current laptop design is actually regarded as a feature by many hackers,” he says.

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It’s still a work in progress, at the moment, but he writes on his blog that he hopes to launch a crowdfunding campaign soon.

About the author

Stan Alcorn is a print, radio and video journalist, regularly reporting for WNYC and NPR. He grew up in New Mexico.

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