1808: Hacking

Explain xkcd: It's 'cause you're dumb.
Revision as of 13:18, 8 March 2017 by (talk) (Pointed out that most of the tools are not far beyond what is available to pentesters.)
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The dump also contains a list of millions of prime factors, a 0-day Tamagotchi exploit, and a technique for getting gcc and bash to execute arbitrary code.
Title text: The dump also contains a list of millions of prime factors, a 0-day Tamagotchi exploit, and a technique for getting gcc and bash to execute arbitrary code.


Ambox notice.png This explanation may be incomplete or incorrect: The main joke from the caption, that this is not dramatic revelation, like Cueball seems to think (sarcasm?) is not mentioned yet.
If you can address this issue, please edit the page! Thanks.

While publishing email addresses on websites, people often add space between parts of the email. For example, [email protected] may be written as john dot doe at example dot org. This is to prevent the page scraping bots from harvesting email addresses, which may in turn be sold as address lists for email marketers.

In this comic, Ponytail tells Cueball that there is a tool which can delete such spaces. Such a tool can fix the space and most likely convert the words "dot" and "at" into their respective symbols. This will overcome the problems faced by such harvesting tools, and make these email addresses more prone to receive spam. Cueball appears shocked to hear this news, but given the caption below this may be sarcasm. A program written to remove a space is of course not very complicated, and believing you e-mail to be safe from harvesting by writing a space in to the address is very naive.

This comic is referencing a leak by WikiLeaks that compromises thousands of hacking exploits, (thus the title), and programs from the CIA on the day before this comic was released, March 7 2017. (See for instance this article: WikiLeaks Just Dumped a Mega-Trove of CIA Hacking Secrets). Many of the tools that were in the leak were similar to publicly available tools, or not entirely unexpected, with several coming from sites such as StackOverflow and reddit.

The title text references more interesting-sounding, but useless, parts of the dump:

  • Millions of prime factors: Prime factorization can be used to break a RSA cipher by turning a large number into prime factors: this is a very hard problem, which is what makes the cipher secure. A list with many prime factors, however, is easy to generate, and the chance of one of the numbers on the list being a prime factor for the number used in the RSA cipher is very slim.
  • A 0-day exploit for Tamagotchi: a 0-day exploit is an exploit of which the manufacturer is not (yet) aware. While modern Tamagotchi do have some network functionality, this is likely useless because Tamagotchi are very low-end devices that do not contain microphones or cameras. (There is some truly excellent work on this at Natalie's page which is a must-read, and as this comic was published on International Women's day, today is a fine day to start if you have not already).
  • A way to get gcc and bash to execute arbitrary code: gcc is a compiler, so preparing arbitrary code is its main purpose, and bash is a Unix shell, so executing arbitrary code is one of its functions.


[Ponytail is writing on her laptop at her desk while Cueball looks over her shoulder.]
Ponytail: You know how sometimes people put a space in their email address to make it harder to harvest?
Cueball: Yeah?
Ponytail: They have a tool that can delete the space!
Cueball: Oh my god.
[Caption below the panel:]
Less-dramatic revelations from the CIA hacking dump


  • This is the second comic in a row about how computers can be misused and also the second in a row where Cueball is with Ponytail rather than Megan.
    • This setup with Ponytail at the computer and Cueball behind has been used several times for instance in 1513: Code Quality, part of the Code Quality series.

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Some explanations for title text:

  • a list of millions of prime factors: trivial to produce and useless without knowing the problem they're from
  • a 0-day Tamagotchi exploit: sounds not very useful, unless modern Tamagotchis have internet connection
  • and a technique for getting gcc and bash to execute arbitrary code: unlike other applications, these two programs (especially when used together) are specifically created to let user execute arbitrary code (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

-- Internet connected tamagotchis you say? http://spritesmods.com/?art=tamasingularity -- 06:42, 8 March 2017 (UTC) --

Expanded the details; I know Tamagotchi hacking is a thing, but I'll leave it to someone who actually knows about it to decide whether it's worth mentioning in the page. Also, "a list of millions of prime factors" could just as well be called "a list of millions of prime numbers", which sounds much less important, but I couldn't think of a brief way to mention that. 09:53, 8 March 2017 (UTC)

The television-show "Zondag met Lubach" (Sunday with Lubach) has prior to the elections in the Netherlands launched the Kamergotchi-app. In this app you have to cuddle and feed your partyleader to keep him/her alive. The party leader is randomly chosen. In the last episode of the show the results from the app were compared with the polls. Surely the CIA and the Russians would like to hack this Tamagotchi-clone. Vince 10:27, 8 March 2017 (UTC) (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

- I think the joke regarding the "millions or prime factors" is that "millions" sounds like a lot, but it is in fact a very small set that can be easily computed, and even more easily downloaded. It is also useless for cracking any modern encryption. Bigprimes.net has a downloadable list of the first 1.4 billion primes; the 1.4 billionth prime (32416190071) is a 40-bit number, which is only useful for factoring 80-bit products at best. The CIA would likely need (and probably do have) at least a trillion primes pre-computed. Sysin (talk) 10:53, 8 March 2017 (UTC)

Say, this was the first header on the WSJ today! That's right, Jacky720 just signed this (talk | contribs) 10:54, 8 March 2017 (UTC)

I think the 0 day tamagotchi exploit might be a pun on 0 day exploits as explained above and the fact that tamigotchis use an ingame time mechanic. So a 0 day tamigotchi exploit might allow you to do something special with or to your tamigotchi while it is still and egg. 12:56, 8 March 2017 (UTC)-

I think you're actually allowed to have an e-mail address like john dot [email protected] - but a lot of programs will be greatly confused by it. That is not really a comment on the comic. Also, I once read someone's research which reported that spam list users simply delete obfuscated addresses, and particularly if "spam" appears in the address; for them, if not for the TLAs, to do more is pointless. So by all means set your real address to [email protected] Although you may have to change your names and sex. Robert Carnegie [email protected]!:-) 15:47, 8 March 2017 (UTC)

A list of one prime from each of the million most important RSA keys could accurately, if understatedly, be described as "a list of a million prime factors". If people realize what it is it would break the web. So it depends on which primes: the first million, meh; a million random primes; yawn; a million carefully chosen primes, yowza! The last two would not be obviously different unless you did some fairly minimal work. A prime the CIA classifies could be interesting. Or they could be messing with us.-- 15:52, 8 March 2017 (UTC)

I can't resist pointing out that anything that has a speaker also has a microphone. So a network connected tamagotchi, which is presumably capable of playing sounds, could also be used as a bug, despite being a "low-end device" ☺ (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

I don't think you can turn a speaker into a microphone using only software, you have to reconnect wires. Also the sound card must already have hardware for audio input. -- 14:59, 9 March 2017 (UTC)
Any speaker can be a microphone too, so "hardware for audio input" is rather loose. It just has to be capable in some way, directly or indirectly, to measure the fluctuations from sound waves striking the speaker. 17:30, 9 March 2017 (UTC)
By hardware for audio input I meant electronic circuits inside the sound card that accept analog input and convert it to a digital signal. If a device is designed just for sound output it might not have the necessary electronics for sound input. -- 21:52, 9 March 2017 (UTC)
If the device uses a RealTek (Conexant, IDT or other) audio codec chip, malware may silently "retask" the output channel as an input channel (as per Intel High Definition Audio specification) and record sound from normally connected speakers without any hardware modification. -- 15:16, 9 March 2017 (UTC)

If the gcc/bash thing was actually a reference to ShellShock or some other real problem, then its inclusion wouldn't be funny... 19:18, 8 March 2017 (UTC)

Pretty sure the gcc/bash thing is a joke about using gcc to make a program, then executing it in bash. This is trivial. A real hack that did this unintentionally would need to involve some other program as well, like some way to get remote access using ssh or such. Trlkly (talk) 21:52, 9 March 2017 (UTC)

In light of the CIA hack revelations, I'm tempted to change my email to Me '); DROP TABLE @gmail.com 09:39, 10 March 2017 (UTC)

Having millions of passwords without a context can be very useful. Ever heard of a dictionary attack? This list is such a dictionary. -- 20:16, 19 March 2017 (UTC)

I really do not think that Cueball is being sarcastic! People exposing security leaks often seem to be convinced that they have found something terrifying when it's really something trivial. Sarcasm would be hugely less funny. 10:09, 4 December 2019 (UTC)