Send in your ideas. Deadline October 1, 2024
Theme fund: NGI0 PET
Start: 2019-08
End: 2022-10
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Zerocat Chipflasher Flashrom Interface

Hardware to flash alternative/libre firmware to BIOS chips

The Zerocat Chipflasher Project aims to provide a fully user controlled electronic device, that helps users to remove the proprietary BIOS firmware from their laptops. The tool allows them to instead run verifiable and Free Firmware, produced by the Coreboot and Libreboot project. Proprietary BIOS is opaque with regards to functionality, and may contain known and unknown security issues. Also controversial elements like the Intel Management Engine can be deactivated. The project helps to empower everyone to create trustworthy digital hardware on her or his own and has been successfully certified by the Respects-Your-Freedom (RYF) Certification Program, set up by the Free Software Foundation in Boston, USA. The device combines the Do-it-Yourself concept with free-design hardware development, even down to chip level. This is achieved by skipping convenient functionalities which would require chips of a proprietary design and by instead using a free-design microcontroller, only. The flasher’s integration into the grid of related existing free software projects yet is to be improved by an additional interface and an in depth firmware review.

Why does this actually matter to end users?

Most users rely on antivirus programs to keep their system and important data safe and private. Visited sites, downloaded files, email coming in and out, everything should pass through a digital border control that keeps malware and spyware out. Perform a complete system scan every other month and most users will be reassured: I am safe. The truth is that there is more than one way into your system and not every backdoor is properly protected. Attackers can also target the BIOS (Basic Input/Output System) program that every computer has to boot up and load the operating system. The BIOS is the first process to run when you power on your computer and is usually not scanned by any antivirus or security software you have installed. Accessing the BIOS and installing malicious software on such a fundamental level gives attackers far-reaching control over a system (which is why it is used for ransomware) and the user usually does not even realize it. And updating their BIOS probably is not something they do (if they are even aware of it at all).

Fortunately, there are plenty of open-source tools developed over the years that can completely secure your system, down from the hardware and the BIOS up to the software you use. Unfortunately, the barrier to entry of many tools is probably too high for most users, who will not now where to begin and get lost in a maze of technical details. Which program is better than the rest, how can I make tool A work with framework B? And how will all of this affect my system, can I still use my computer the way I am used to? The Zerocat Chipflasher Project wants to empower users to create their own trustworthy devices, remove any proprietary BIOS firmware and instead run and install verifiable open source, free software.

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This project was funded through the NGI0 PET Fund, a fund established by NLnet with financial support from the European Commission's Next Generation Internet programme, under the aegis of DG Communications Networks, Content and Technology under grant agreement No 825310.