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One person’s journey to jailbreak a second-hand prison laptop is the most compelling read I’ve had in absolutely ages

What more does one need to add to a story headline like the one above? Basically just that thread below—go read it and then come back and tell me you weren’t absorbed even if you had no idea what they were talking about half the time.

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Essentially a person buys a prison laptop off eBay, tinkers with it to see if they can make it work, then tumbles down an enormous rabbit hole of astonishing things you never knew about tech in jails. That alone makes it sound really cool but the whole story, replete with neat pictures and help from other readers, just makes it the best thing I’ve read in a long time.

The person in question is zephray_wenting on X (or Twitter, if you prefer) and the journey begins with a look at the laptop in question: An older model of Justice Tech Solution’s Securebook range. It looks odd at first glance but that’s because almost every piece of plastic used is translucent, with the reason being…err…clear. You don’t want anyone hiding something inside the laptop for another inmate to use or the like.

But other than just looking like a really cheap laptop, the next thing you notice is the fact the laptop immediately boots to a BIOS password prompt. Again, nothing too surprising, but it’s at this point that the doorway to Alice’s wonderland truly opens wide. There’s no operating system, no storage drive, no USB ports.

Just an Intel Celeron N3450, 4GB of LPDDR3, a Wi-Fi module, one SATA port, and a proprietary connector for a dock of some kind.

At this point, I should imagine that many of us in the same situation would just recycle the laptop as e-waste and consider it just one of those things that happen when you buy random old stuff off eBay. Not the case here: Wenting leveraged all kinds of cool tricks to bypass the password and solve the problem of there being no hard drive or SSD, and eventually get FreeDoom up and running. Because of course it has to run Doom.

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The former issue ends up being taken up by the wider Twitterscape, with other readers chipping in by trying to hack the password encryption via a brute force approach. As for the storage drive problem, that one only got stranger as the laptop contained a list of disk models that would be blocked by the BIOS.

Rather than trying to find one that would work, Wenting ‘simply’ hot-wired a USB hub into the laptop, utilising the USB signal off the touchpad’s connector! All that hard work proved to be a success, as an Ubuntu installation worked just fine.

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But the story didn’t end there. The hard drive ban list turned out to be limited to those using a specific type of boot loader, so Wenting managed to get a permanent storage solution in place (which naturally just so happened to be a datacenter-spec SSD) and get a patched BIOS onto the laptop, removing the need for any further password hacking.

The truly remarkable thing about the whole journey is that the whole thing took place over a matter of days, or at the very least, that’s what the date stamp on the opening image of the unhacked laptop suggests.

Sure, the whole story on X was posted on the same day, but the way it was broken up made it read like a proper tech thriller story: An opening shot to draw you in, twists and turns, a few near-misses, before the hero’s victory at the end (in the form of Doom). And the interactions and help from other readers gave it such a wholesome feel.

Social media doesn’t always get things right but when it does, this is the kind of result we want. More of this please!

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