DARPA has recently awarded a grant to a young security researcher to continue development of a viable spy computer so cheap it can be trashed after one use. Called the F-BOMB — the Falling- or Ballistically-launched Object that Makes Backdoors — is built from commercially available parts and can be assembled for about $50.
At that price, the F-BOMB can be thrown at a target to gather data without its users worrying about having to retrieve it.
The disposable spy device is made from a PogoPlug min-computer, some tiny antennas, eight gigs of flash memory and a 3D-printed plastic casing. It's smaller than the average tissue box and is designed to be dropped from drones, thrown by soldiers, or even stealthily hidden in a target's environment.
Its Linux based OS can be modified to perform a variety of functions, and in the short term can carry a module of AA batteries that allows for a few hours of use. Longer use models are in development.
Designed by Brendan O'Connor, a 26-year old security consultant, the F-BOMB just received the DARPA contract as part of the Cyber Fast Track program that awards small sums to inventors.
While the device was in theory created to find security flaws in clients' networks, O'Connor floats some other creative ideas for its use. It could operate as a meteorological sensor. Or, with some Wifi cracking software or cheap GPS modules it could be a spy on data networks or track targets.
Moving into DARPA's territory, O'Connor speculates it could be dropped or lowered from military drones to perform reconnaissance. It could be hidden inside a plugged in carbon monoxide detector to spy in a target's home turf over longer periods.
What DARPA really intends to do with it remains a secret, but it seems like it could have endless military applications.
O'Connor is no stranger to DARPA projects, having worked for one of their contractors, and as a graduate student at John Hopkins' sensor research lab. He notes his inspiration for the F-BOMB came from last summer's hacker conference, Defcon, where he attended talks on firing camera projectiles and aerial surveillance platforms.
O'Connor thought the ideas he heard were good, but that he could do better. For one, his off-the-shelf system is cheaper, and by using these commercial parts the computers can be left behind without revealing who built it, as more specialized models could.
"If you lose it, it's not a big deal," O'Connor told MSNBC. "And if they take it apart, they don't learn anything about you."