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EFF praises Android’s new 2G kill switch, wants Apple to follow suit

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Enlarge / This phone is receiving a 2G signal.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation is celebrating Google’s addition of a 2G kill switch to Android 12. The digital rights group has been campaigning against the dated, insecure 2G cellular standard since 2020, and Android is the first mobile OS to take the group’s advice and let users completely disable 2G.

In the US, carriers shut down 2G years ago, and the 3G shutdown is already underway. Phones have not really gotten the message, though, and modems still try to connect to any nearby 2G signals automatically. The problem is that 2G is very old, and it’s a lot like connecting to a WEP-secured Wi-Fi hotspot—the security is obsolete, so it’s easy to crack. If you’re in a country where legitimate uses of 2G are long dead, the standard only serves as an attack vector via fake cell phone towers, so why not just shut it off?

The EFF explains the issues:

There are two main problems with 2G. First, it uses weak encryption between the tower and device that can be cracked in real time by an attacker to intercept calls or text messages. In fact, the attacker can do this passively without ever transmitting a single packet. The second problem with 2G is that there is no authentication of the tower to the phone, which means that anyone can seamlessly impersonate a real 2G tower and a phone using the 2G protocol will never be the wiser.

This isn’t to say that non-2G signals are “secure.” They are less insecure, but you still shouldn’t trust the cellular network. The best practice is to encrypt everything. This is generally the default for web communications, but depending on how your carrier and phone are set up, carrier services like SMS and phone calls could be more vulnerable.

So why is 2G still on by default, even though it’s so obviously obsolete? The 2G story varies dramatically around the world. The IoT cellular company EMnify maintains an incredible global 2G phase-out list that is worth perusing. Some countries like the US, Canada, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan have been off 2G for a while. Europe isn’t killing 2G until 2025, though. Some South American countries are keeping the standard around until 2024, and some countries in Africa have no scheduled 2G shutdown date at all.

Even if you are in a country that still has 2G, you probably want to turn it off. 2G has no ability to send data at all, so it most likely only facilitates horrible analog voice calls and maybe SMS—if your carrier has the worst, most poorly maintained SMS system on Earth. There’s a good chance that killing 2G will change absolutely nothing about your smartphone experience, so give it a shot.

With Android taken care of, the EFF is now focusing on Apple. It’s leading a Twitter campaign with a one-click tweet button reading, “Hey @Apple, 2G is an outdated and insecure technology! Google just gave us the option to turn it off in our phones and now it’s your turn!”

How the 2G kill switch works on Android

This 2G kill switch is a new feature in Android 12, but which phones are actually getting it? As is usual with Android, the answer is complicated, and the switch is not coming to all Android 12 phones. As the Android 12 release notes point out, the actual requirements for the features are Android 12 and the “Radio 1.6 HAL.”

This radio “hardware abstraction layer” is one of the Project Treble vendor interfaces we talk about so much. Treble is a project that modularizes the OS away from the hardware support, allowing for easier updates; this HAL is that interface that sits between the OS and the hardware driver. The actual HALs don’t get updated much, so your best bet for getting a 2G kill switch is buying a new Android phone launching with Android 12, not a phone that is being upgraded to Android 12.

The 2G kill switch on Android 12.
Enlarge / The 2G kill switch on Android 12.

Ron Amadeo

But wait, this is Android, so the carriers can get in the way, too. As the release notes say, “Carriers can disable the feature at runtime.” With all the possible variables here, the only way to really know if killing 2G is supported is to open the settings and look. I can confirm the switch is on the Pixel 6, and the EFF says to check some newer Samsung phones.

If you want to kill 2G and have a normal settings layout, the switch is at “Settings > Network & Internet > SIMs > Allow 2G.” If your OEM scrambled the Android settings for the purposes of “differentiation,” try searching for “2G” or hunting around the cellular settings.

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This 22-year-old builds chips in his parents’ garage

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Enlarge / Sam Zeloof completed this homemade computer chip with 1,200 transistors, seen under a magnifying glass, in August 2021.

Sam Kang

In August, chipmaker Intel revealed new details about its plan to build a “mega-fab” on US soil, a $100 billion factory where 10,000 workers will make a new generation of powerful processors studded with billions of transistors. The same month, 22-year-old Sam Zeloof announced his own semiconductor milestone. It was achieved alone in his family’s New Jersey garage, about 30 miles from where the first transistor was made at Bell Labs in 1947.

With a collection of salvaged and homemade equipment, Zeloof produced a chip with 1,200 transistors. He had sliced up wafers of silicon, patterned them with microscopic designs using ultraviolet light, and dunked them in acid by hand, documenting the process on YouTube and his blog. “Maybe it’s overconfidence, but I have a mentality that another human figured it out, so I can too, even if maybe it takes me longer,” he says.

Zeloof’s chip was his second. He made the first, much smaller one as a high school senior in 2018; he started making individual transistors a year before that. His chips lag Intel’s by technological eons, but Zeloof argues only half-jokingly that he’s making faster progress than the semiconductor industry did in its early days. His second chip has 200 times as many transistors as his first, a growth rate outpacing Moore’s law, the rule of thumb coined by an Intel cofounder that says the number of transistors on a chip doubles roughly every two years.

Zeloof now hopes to match the scale of Intel’s breakthrough 4004 chip from 1971, the first commercial microprocessor, which had 2,300 transistors and was used in calculators and other business machines. In December, he started work on an interim circuit design that can perform simple addition.

Zeloof says making it easier to tinker with semiconductors would foster new ideas in tech.
Enlarge / Zeloof says making it easier to tinker with semiconductors would foster new ideas in tech.

Sam Kang

Outside Zeloof’s garage, the pandemic has triggered a global semiconductor shortage, hobbling supplies of products from cars to game consoles. That’s inspired new interest from policymakers in rebuilding the US capacity to produce its own computer chips, after decades of offshoring.

Garage-built chips aren’t about to power your PlayStation, but Zeloof says his unusual hobby has convinced him that society would benefit from chipmaking being more accessible to inventors without multimillion-dollar budgets. “That really high barrier to entry will make you super risk-averse, and that’s bad for innovation,” Zeloof says.

Zeloof started down the path to making his own chips as a high school junior, in 2016. He was impressed by YouTube videos from inventor and entrepreneur Jeri Ellsworth in which she made her own, thumb-sized transistors, in a process that included templates cut from vinyl decals and a bottle of rust stain remover. Zeloof set out to replicate Ellsworth’s project and take what to him seemed a logical next step: going from lone transistors to integrated circuits, a jump that historically took about a decade. “He took it a quantum leap further,” says Ellsworth, now CEO of an augmented-reality startup called Tilt Five. “There’s tremendous value in reminding the world that these industries that seem so far out of reach started somewhere more modest, and you can do that yourself.”

Computer chip fabrication is sometimes described as the world’s most difficult and precise manufacturing process. When Zeloof started blogging about his goals for the project, some industry experts emailed to tell him it was impossible. “The reason for doing it was honestly because I thought it would be funny,” he says. “I wanted to make a statement that we should be more careful when we hear that something’s impossible.”

Zeloof’s family was supportive but also cautious. His father asked a semiconductor engineer he knew to offer some safety advice. “My first reaction was that you couldn’t do it. This is a garage,” says Mark Rothman, who has spent 40 years in chip engineering and now works at a company making technology for OLED screens. Rothman’s initial reaction softened as he saw Zeloof’s progress. “He has done things I would never have thought people could do.”

Zeloof’s project involves history as well as engineering. Modern chip fabrication takes place in facilities whose expensive HVAC systems remove every trace of dust that might trouble their billions of dollars of machinery. Zeloof couldn’t match those techniques, so he read patents and textbooks from the 1960s and ’70s, when engineers at pioneering companies like Fairchild Semiconductor made chips at ordinary workbenches. “They describe methods using X-Acto blades and tape and a few beakers, not ‘We have this $10 million machine the size of a room,’” Zeloof says.

Zeloof had to stock his lab with vintage equipment too. On eBay and other auction sites he found a ready supply of bargain chip gear from the 1970s and ’80s that once belonged to since-shuttered Californian tech companies. Much of the equipment required fixing, but old machines are easier to tinker with than modern lab machinery. One of Zeloof’s best finds was a broken electron microscope that cost $250,000 in the early ’90s; he bought it for $1,000 and repaired it. He uses it to inspect his chips for flaws, as well as the nanostructures on butterfly wings.

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Google Labs starts up a blockchain division

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Here’s a fun new report from Bloomberg: Google is forming a blockchain division. The news comes hot on the heels of a Bloomberg report from yesterday that quoted Google’s president of commerce as saying, “Crypto is something we pay a lot of attention to.” Web3 is apparently becoming a thing at Google.

Shivakumar Venkataraman, a longtime Googler from the advertising division, is running the blockchain group, which lives under the nascent “Google Labs” division that was started about three months ago. Labs is home to “high-potential, long-term projects,” basically making it the new Google X division (X was turned into a less-Google-focused Alphabet division in 2016). Bavor used to be vice president of virtual reality, and Labs contains all of those VR and augmented reality projects, like the “Project Starline” 3D video booth and Google’s AR goggles.

Just like “algorithms,” “AI,” and “5G,” “blockchain” is often used as the go-to buzzword for rudderless tech executives hoping to hype up investors or consumers. A blockchain is really just a distributed, P2P database, sort of like if BitTorrent hosted a database instead of pirated movies and Linux ISOs. The database is chopped up into blocks, and each new block contains a cryptographic hash of the previous block, forming a chain of records that protect each other against alterations. On a traditional database, transactions are verified by the database owner, but on a blockchain, nobody owns the database, so each transaction needs to be verified by many computers. This is the big downside of blockchains: everyone’s constant transaction verifications use a massive amount of electricity and computing power.

The decentralized nature of blockchains means nobody can take down your database, which cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin leverage to make a wealth transaction system that no government controls. But it’s not always clear why you would add all the complication and energy usage of a blockchain to your project.

Not much is known about the group, except that it is focused on “blockchain and other next-gen distributed computing and data storage technologies.” Google’s growth into a web giant has made it a pioneer in distributed computing and database development, so maybe it could make some noise in this area as well.

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The reviews are in: AMD’s mining-averse RX 6500 XT also isn’t great at gaming

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Enlarge / The Sapphire AMD Radeon RX 6500 XT, yet another GPU that you probably won’t be able to buy. (credit: Sapphire)

When AMD announced its budget-friendly RX 6500 XT graphics card at CES early this month, the company suggested that the product had been designed with limitations that would make it unappealing to the cryptocurrency miners who have been exacerbating the ongoing GPU shortage for over a year now. But now that reviews of the card have started to hit, it’s clear that its gaming performance is the collateral damage of those limitations.

Reviews from Tom’s Hardware, PCGamer, TechSpot, Gamers Nexus, and a litany of other PC gaming YouTube channels are unanimous: The RX 6500 XT is frequently outperformed by previous-generations graphics cards, and it comes with other caveats beyond performance that limit its appeal even further. (Ars hasn’t been provided with a review unit.)

The core of the problem is a 64-bit memory interface that limits the amount of memory bandwidth the card has to work with. Plus, the card has only 4GB of RAM, which is beginning to be a limiting factor in modern games, especially at resolutions above 1080p. Many tests saw the RX 6500 XT outperformed by the 8GB variant of the RX 5500 XT, which launched at the tail end of 2019 for the same $199 (and you could actually find and buy it for that price).

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