Dropping the F-Bomb

Summer 2012

Brendan O’Connor has dropped a big one with his latest invention: a little spy computer that he has dubbed the F-BOMB.

“DARPA loves acronyms. This one is both descriptive and memorable,” says O’Connor, BS and MS ’08, a security researcher and proud hacker, who earned his Whiting School degrees in computer science and is working under contract for DARPA. “Beyond simply being hilarious, the F-BOMB name is descriptive because it involves actually dropping the device from low-altitude, unmanned aerial vehicles.” The moniker is short for “Falling/Ballistically Launched Object That Makes Backdoors.”

After its January debut at the annual hacker convention ShmooCon, O’Connor’s device made national headlines for its small size, cost, and potential to benefit security research and practice. The F-BOMB, the size of a slice of sandwich bread (3.5 x 4 x 0.5 inches), is composed of an embedded computer running Linux, some flash memory, an antenna, and a 3D-printed case. The parts are easy to find and cost less than $50, and when assembled, create a sensor-equipped computer that can conduct surveillance.

Discreet due to its minimal size, the F-BOMB can be dropped from a drone or subtly plugged into an electrical socket in plain sight-even placed inside a carbon monoxide detector-while it quietly collects data that is relayed back over a wireless network. And because the gadget is so cheap, it can be sacrificed after a single use.

“If some target is surrounded by bad men with guns, you don’t want to have to retrieve the computer, but you also don’t want to have to pay $500 for every use,” O’Connor told Forbes. “The idea is that it’s as close to free as possible. So you can throw a bunch of these sensors at a target and get away with losing a couple of nodes in the process.”

O’Connor continues his work on the F-BOMB through his one-man security consultancy, Malice Afterthought, with a DARPA Cyber Fast Track research contract he received to develop the software command and control components to complement the F-BOMB’s hardware.

O’Connor’s hacking history and interest in computer security date to his preschool days in Billings, Montana, when teachers found him deconstructing an

original Apple computer. After completing his International Baccalaureate degree at the United World College in Montezuma, New Mexico, he applied to Johns Hopkins. While pursuing information security research in the five-year dual-degree program, he also studied constitutional law.

Now a full-time law student at the University of Wisconsin, O’Connor says that “the only thing people are more scared of than hackers is lawyers. All of my work at Hopkins was in the issue of privacy and security, and that is the same area I am interested in [with] the law. What I hope to be able to do is augment the technical parts of ensuring privacy on the Internet with the legal aspects so governments around the world don’t take steps that abolish privacy, intentionally or accidentally.

“We need more lawyers who are actually geeks and who can speak both languages-technical and legal,” he says.

While he pursues another degree, he’s also making history. This spring, following the F-BOMB’s debut, O’Connor was contacted by the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C., to provide a prototype for display.