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Data Sheet—Saturday, April 2, 2016

This newsletter has devoted plenty of coverage to the ongoing legal dispute between one of the world’s most valuable companies and the nation’s law enforcement over these past few weeks. If you’re looking for updates on that front, skip to the news below. You’ll find plenty on Apple versus the Federal Bureau of Investigation there. As for this essay, I need a break. So time for a different subject.

Recall that analogy one computer forensics expert used to describe how the Feds might unlock that San Bernardino shooter’s contested iPhone? Jonathan Zdziarski, an iOS hacker, said that by backing up the data stored on one of the phone’s memory chips, an investigator could try as many passcodes as needed on the device without fear of triggering a data wipe. How? Simple: continuously rewrite the chip to its original state, thus bypassing the handset’s “self-destruct” feature. Genius, really.

Zdziarski compared this hypothetical technique—which he demonstrated himself—to a game of Super Mario Bros. The method is similar to how a video game player might keep reverting to a previous save point, allowing her to continuously replay a level to her liking. (Unfortunately for Zdziarski, whose metaphor has been quoted just about everywhere, there is no last save point.)

Anyway, I raise the analogy once again not to dwell on Apple vs. FBI (nor to impugn Zdziarski’s reputation) but as a preface to a segue. At the same time as investigators were attempting to unlock that iPhone, another hacker was at work reprogramming his game of Super Mario World as well as his Super Nintendo Entertainment System game console to do something positively whacky.

Now, this other man’s hack did not reveal the content of any encrypted correspondences from a terrorist. It did not leak any government top secrets. Nor did it expose anyone’s personal information to the world. What it did do is something really freaking cool.

“I used a series of Super Mario World glitches to inject 331 bytes of processor instructions into system RAM,” says the gamer, who goes by Seth Bling. “It was the source code for Flappy Bird.”

Yes, this man transformed a classic Nintendo game into that super popular, pixelated, avian side-scrolling phenomenon that rose to prominence out of seemingly nowhere, and disappeared just as quickly after its Vietnamese creator inexplicably yanked it from app stores two years ago. Computers have executed similar Mario code exploits before, mutating the Italian plumber’s quest into games of Snake or Pong. What makes this one so interesting is that the guy did it all by hand: power-upping, red shell-spitting, and spin-jumping his way into the console’s unused memory. Byte by byte, he rewrote the data therein until he achieved his ultimate aim: Flappy Bird. That’s hacker ingenuity at its finest.

Watch a recap of the marvelous feat on YouTube here. And remember: Hacking doesn’t always have to be a hifalutin good versus evil kind of thing. In some cases, it’s just plain old fun.

Speaking of which, I’ll be stopping by HackNY today to mentor some students as they select projects for a weekend-long hackathon. Hope to see you there?

In the meantime, keep on hacking, Cyber Saturday readers. Make the Pentagon proud.

Robert Hackett


Welcome to the Cyber Saturday edition of Data Sheet, Fortune‘s daily tech newsletter. Fortune reporter Robert Hackett here. You may reach me via Twitter, Cryptocat, Jabber, PGP encrypted email, Wickr, Signal, or however you (securely) prefer. Feedback welcome.


FBI didn’t need Apple’s help after all. The Federal Bureau of Investigation said it successfully broke into an iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino shooters. The development led some people to ask: Are Apple’s devices—and its users’ personal data—less secure than we thought? (Fortune, Fortune)

Will the FBI reveal how it hacked the phone? No one knows. Apple may petition the courts to learn the method though. (Fortune, Fortune)

Will the FBI use the method on other phones? It’s possible. The technique would no doubt benefit plenty of pending law enforcement investigations—including an Arkansas murder case and a Brooklyn drug case. (FortuneFortune, Fortune)

Egypt blocks Facebook Free Basics. The social network apparently refused to allow the Egyptian government to spy on users of Facebook’s free Internet services bundle, so Egypt blocked it. India recently banned the program for net neutrality reasons. (Fortune)

Reddit receives National Security Letter? The forum website’s latest transparency report on government requests for user data omits a so-called warrant canary. The 2015 report is, in other words, missing a section that in past years stated the site had not received any secret orders from the FBI. (Fortune)

Ransomware on the rise. More and more hospitals are being targeted with malicious software programs that hold data for ransom. Why? Because its a lucrative scheme for cybercriminals. D.C.-area hospital chain MedStar got hit this week. The FBI also issued a warning about the trend. (Fortune, Fortune, Fortune)

U.S. visa database has vulnerabilities. Hackers can apparently manipulate or steal data stored in an important State Department record-keeping system. The “consular consolidated database” is the foundation upon which the government vets travelers to and from the country. (Fortune)

Hack the Pentagon opens for business. Hackers may now register for the federal government’s first ever computer bug bounty program. The program officially runs between April 18 and May 12. (Fortune)

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Fortune’s Jeff John Roberts on why Alphabet’s Eric Schmidt isn’t particularly worried about artificial intelligence doomsday scenarios.

Beyond the impact of machine learning on the job market, Schmidt also downplayed its military and cyber-war implications. In his view, as the world’s computers become more inter-connected, AI may come to serve as a “defensive shield” for the global network by identifying and isolating abnormal activities.

“This technology may be very pro-defense. We don’t know yet,” he said, but acknowledged that Google’s leaders did worry about AI in the hands of dictators and authoritarian regimes.

At a time when hacking is regular front-page news, including a recent cyber-plot against a dam in New York, many in the room did not appear to be reassured by Schmidt’s observations. Read the rest on


‘Cyber Jihad’ Is Coming to America by Chris Matthews

Katy Perry and Christina Aguilera Push for Reforms to Music Piracy Laws by Will Robinson

Hacker Sends Nazi Fliers to Thousands of Printers in Internet of Things Experiment by Jen Wieczner

British Company Called De La Rue Wants to Make Passports Obsolete by Michal Addady

1 in 5 Employees Would Sell Their Work Passwords by Jonathan Chew

Pentagon Chief Used Personal Email Account for Nearly a Year by Meghan O’Dea

Here’s Why the Blockchain Would Have Saved Lehman Brothers by Jeff Bukhari

Why Is a Trump Web Ad Next to an ISIS YouTube Video by Amir Nasr

Adblock Plus Keeps Beating ‘Old Guard’ Media in Court by David Meyer

Italian Father Pleads His Case After Apple vs. FBI Dispute by Hilary Brueck


Beware of Trojan eagles. Soviet schoolchildren once tricked a U.S. ambassador into hanging a bugged Great Seal on his embassy office wall for seven years. They had presented the plaque as a gift. The eavesdropping device in question was created by none other than Léon Theremin, inventor of the self-named electronic musical instrument. (Messy Nessy Chic)