My personal fight against the modern laptop

Presented by Hamish Coleman
Friday 11:35 a.m.–12:20 p.m.
Target audience: Community


In this talk, I will take you through the tools and techniques I used to reverse engineer the keyboard controller in my Thinkpad laptop and re-flash it with custom firmware. This will cover how the Thinkpad range of laptops have tried to secure their firmware from unauthorised changes. Finally, I will present my ongoing work to reverse engineer the protocol used between the BIOS and the vendor's flash update tool (which included writing a custom virtual machine to emulate a minimal laptop).

I was driven to start this project when I realised that the laptops currently on sale just did not meet my requirements. Even the durable Thinkpad laptops I have preferred in the past are being dumbed down. Eventually, I will need a new laptop - and with the current offerings, I just do not want anything I can purchase off the shelf. I knew I was not going to be able to build my own laptop from scratch (and having discounted all the current free/open laptop offerings) so I started looking at what I could hack together.

To keep the project achievable, I reduced my laptop gripes as far as I could and focused on just the keyboard - asking the question: "Can I shoehorn an older keyboard in a modern laptop?" Eventually answering it with "yes, sometimes."

It turned out to be easily possible to physically replace the keyboard on any of the Thinkpads in the xx30 series with one from the xx20 series. I was stalled with a half-working keyboard until early 2016 when Zmatt published how he unlocked his laptop. The firmware changes needed were bundled up into a complete build system which others have used to replicate the keyboard replacement. However, with both these laptop series' being several years old now, I am still looking at forward porting this to a newer laptop - which has led me to research the hardware and firmware design there.

I will also take the audience through my current knowledge of how the vendor's protocol to tell the BIOS to write a new image to flash works. Now that it is possible to write new code for the embedded controller and to install it and run it - I wanted to know how secure this was (or wasn't) separate to simply "fixing" the keyboard. I have written a custom virtualisation tool to host the vendors "dosflash" program and capture the protocol it uses to request that the BIOS write a new image to flash.

It is my hope that others will be inspired to look closer at their hardware and to give them both some tools and the confidence that it is possible to "fix" the way that consumer hardware works.

Presented by

Hamish Coleman

Hamish got his first real computer in 1988 when he convinced his Dad to order one via mail-order, but it arrived unassembled - thus kick starting his efforts to bend hardware to his will.

This evolved into a career as a Sys Admin - working at large Australian banks, small startups and everything in between both at home in Australia and abroad - but most importantly, his quest to make computers do his bidding (and not the other way around) has continued to drive his tinkering with software and hardware at home and at work.

He strongly believes that Open Source is the best way to keep the control of our hardware and software in our own hands. As such he is a keen advocate for openness - not just for the tinkerers, but for all the other people who currently struggle to bend any technology to their own needs.

Hamish currently lives in Melbourne in a cupboard under the stairs, where he tends to his various pet computers.

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