Session
FOSDEM 2021 Schedule
Open Research Tools and Technologies

Reverse-engineering as a crossroads for investigation, science and open tools and technologies

We are experimentally trying to revisit the practice of reverse-engineering to explore these possible and effective contributions in the case of investigation (journalism, activism, science, art).
D.research
Xavier Coadic
“We want (Exposing the Invisible) to inspire a new generation of people committed to transparency and accountability.” (Tactical Tech). Reverse-engineering consists in studying an object (or a method) in order to determine its internal functioning. Reverse-engineering consists in identifying a precise case, making a recognition, disassembling step by step and piece by piece, then understanding the mechanism; and finally reassembling the object (or the method) with a new value proposition in its operation. We are experimentally trying to revisit the practice of reverse-engineering to explore these possible and effective contributions in the case of investigation (journalism, activism, science, art). By: Xavier, Jess, Nuria, Clio, Laura… and more folks from Exposing The Invisible project.
In investigations, reverse engineering can be valuable as a process of learning from scratch based on deconstructing existing case studies/investigations and being able to replicate in many cases at least the more accessible parts and processes, which led to the findings and evidence exposed. Today, organizations, events, collectives, are configuring themselves in a multidisciplinary way to tackle problems to be studied, to tackle problems to be solved. We are ourselves a group of people from different fields with different practices and skills - citizen investigators, journalists, researchers artists, technologists, etc. -- who want to demonstrate that learning to investigate can be made more accessible to local communities and individuals who may need to use such techniques in a safe, ethical and collaborative way in their own context. Reverse engineering practices allow us to consider these paradigms from different angles, then open windows, similar to those of open hardware and free open-source software, in the fields of environment, biology, health. Reverse-engineering as a process of deconstructing investigations, asking questions to figure out how they were made (methods, tools, resources needed, challenges, safety...) Taking something less understood or inaccessible to many and transforming it into something public -- reverse-engineering it back to the commons. The process is about finding the fundamental backbone of events, what is the part of the investigation that can be taken away. Reverse-engineering investigations implies to be able to reconstruct and experiment with the methods and information acquired in the initial process in order to visualize what elements are indispensable to how a "system" works. It also allows one to figure out what elements could be removed, replaced with more contextual information if the method can be replicated, or "hacked" to make the "system" or method work differently in other settings. Methodology & Major Findings: We are experimentally trying to revisit the practice of reverse-engineering to explore these possible and effective contributions in the case of investigation (journalism, activism, science, art). We engage with different techniques, tools and methods along with the individual practices of those working at the new frontiers of investigation. We all come from very different research and professional backgrounds, use different methodologies and techniques, investigate very different things. From a software perspective, reverse-engineering is used for: industrial espionage cracking exploit creation security audit bug correction malware analysis interoperability scientific study fun. But one question that unites us all is: what do you do when faced with a "dark box"? A finished product or event that fascinates you, but its development process, features and functions are in some way hidden from sight. It could be a network, a photograph, an environmental catastrophe, a machine - something that in order to understand or act upon, you need to be able to reconstruct how it was made. We work with some non-negotiable constraints to this complex problem: intimacy & privacy concerns of the practice used and the result low cost or free cost access accessible, affordable, usable no domination provided to a person who has scientific or technical knowledge, understanding or skill reliable, transparent, and readable result. When we share, give or receive information, during investigations or knowledge sharing sessions, we have the responsibility of explaining or demystifying a complex architectural object: we try to deal with a complex architectural object we often try to disassemble objects, even if we don’t really figure it out. Through several experimental residencies, educational workshops, operational implementations in the field, we have gained experience and opened up a few paths for collaboration on "Reverse before any action, reverse-engineering the existing rather than producing new dark boxes". Even some use cases of Reverse-engineering during investigation. Conclusion: By practicing reverse-engineering on a pregnancy urine test or on a digital photo with steganography in it people regain control over the information and the technique. Similarly, the method can be applied to investigations, especially the ones built on openly available information (see such cases here: https://kit.exposingtheinvisible.org/en/index.html) and with open source tools (including OSINT investigations but not only) as well as to more complex inquiries such as follow-the-money investigations, supply chain and much more. By reverse-engineering investigations, we can help demystify and expose the insides of a process that is often assumed to be exclusive to professional investigators (journalists, law enforcement, private investigators ..). Now we want to invite other communities of practice more broadly to contribute to our experimental approach − at the crossroads between investigation, science, and open tools and technologies in order to encourage more people to use investigation methods to understand their often non-transparent environments and find safe and ethical ways to ask and address the questions and problems affecting their communities. We also accept that our world is filled with objects from extractivist political choices supporting hyper-growth as a productive dogma. We take our responsibility here by opening a different path in the relationship to objects, which consists as much in the mastery of knowledge and techniques as in the perspective of disassembling and improving accessibility to the existing rather than extracting in order to overproduce the invading.

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