Arik Hesseldahl

Recent Posts by Arik Hesseldahl

How a Man in Austria Used Legos to Hack Amazon’s Kindle E-Book Security

kindle_with_booksI wouldn’t normally pay much attention to an item like this, but there’s just something about it that I find fascinating, involving Amazon’s Kindle and Legos.

A university professor in Austria has released the video below, showing how he has automated a low-tech approach to bypassing the digital rights management system on the Kindle.

His name is Peter Purgathofer, and he’s an associate professor at the Vienna University of Technology.

Using Lego’s Mindstorms — a basic robotics kit popular with hobbyists — plus a Kindle and a Mac, he has assembled a way to photograph what’s on the screen, and then submit it to a cloud-based text-recognition service.

It’s sort of a combination of high tech meets low. The scanning is done by way of the Mac’s iSight camera. The Mindstorms set does two things: Hits the page-advance button on the Kindle (it appears to be an older model, like the one in the picture above), then mashes the space bar on the Mac, causing it to take a picture.

And while the video doesn’t show exactly what’s running on the Mac, it could easily be Photo Booth combined with a script that auto-submits the pictures to pretty much any free optical-character-recognition service, like, maybe, FreeOCR.

I reached out to Purgathofer to ask a little more about this, but haven’t heard back yet. On his Vimeo page, he describes this as a “provocative thought experiment” and not an invitation or instruction on how to carry it out.

Update:I just got an email from Purgathofer. He says he got the idea for using the Kindle and the Mindstorms kit for something neither were intended for. “It ended being a reflection on the loss of long-established rights when you buy an e-book. You make a copy of that book, but at eye-level, so that the result is not a stack of paper, but another e-book.”

It’s not intended as a statement against e-books, which he loves, he says, but rather what he considers a “dramatic loss of rights for the book owner. “The owner isn’t even an owner anymore but rather a licensee of the book,” he says.

Another thing: He’s only ever scanned one book, and that was just to prove the concept. And he hasn’t shared it anywhere “…since it would get me in deep trouble,” he says.

It’s worth noting that Purgathofer teaches a course on what he describes as “the interaction between society and technology,” which is mandatory for first year students in informatics. But he insists that the DIY Kindle Scanner has nothing to do with his academic work. “It’s a private project,” he says.

I also reached out to Amazon for a comment, and will update this post if it offers one.

Anyway, here’s the video.

DIY kindle scanner from peter purgathofer on Vimeo.


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Another gadget you don’t really need. Will not work once you get it home. New model out in 4 weeks. Battery life is too short to be of any use.

— From the fact sheet for a fake product entitled Useless Plasticbox 1.2 (an actual empty plastic box) placed in L.A.-area Best Buy stores by an artist called Plastic Jesus