EP 12 | Hillbilly hacker Travis Goodspeed on junk hacking and the right to repair
Hillbilly hacker and embedded systems reverse engineer Travis Goodspeed thinks repair is a “natural right.” As for exercising that right? It’s complicated.
Travis Goodspeed has a unique relationship with “stuff.” A renowned “hillbilly hacker” from Tennessee, Travis is a reverse engineer and device hacker without peer. He’s best known as an outspoken advocate of “junk hacking” - the practice of probing low end, low stakes devices like children’s toys and consumer as a safe (that is: lawsuit-free) way to understand the workings of more complex, higher stakes technology - from enterprise systems to critical infrastructure- that often shares hardware and software with that low end stuff.
Rethinking our stuff
But taking stuff apart is just one of Travis’s passions. He’s equally famous for the stuff he’s created. His Github projects have spawned hundreds of forks and include the GoodWatch, a modification of a Casio calculator watch that Travis re-engineered to transmit and receive radio signals; Goodfet, an embedded bus adapter for microcontrollers and radios; as well as the Tytera MD-380: a low cost DMR radio that he reverse engineered to run custom firmware.
Not surprisingly: Travis is a passionate believer in the right to repair, which he describes as a kind of “natural right” that individuals should exercise, regardless of legal and commercial impediments. But his deep experience exploring the innards of connected devices and years spent navigating around the shoals of copyright and computer hacking laws have given Travis a nuanced take on our ability to exercise that natural right to repair.
In this conversation, Travis talks to me about growing up in east Tennessee, in and around Dollywood, where his mother worked as a stained glass master craftswoman for two decades. We also talk about his unique take on the right to repair, and the growing legions of stuff that populates our world - one informed by a deep understanding of the common hardware and software hiding beneath the sleek exteriors of connected devices.
Travis Goodspeed: My name is Travis Goodspeed. I don't really have a title.
Paul Roberts: It's one of the things I love about you. So I'm really excited to have you on the show, obviously in the Fight to Repair Podcast, we focus on the issues around right to repair and your name really precedes you especially in like information security circles. But for our audience who might not be as familiar because they might not necessarily be InfoSec people, could you give us a little bit of your origin story and talk to us about your superpowers and what you do?
Travis Goodspeed: Sure. So I'm a hillbilly out of east Tennessee. I grew up at a Dolly Parton's theme park called Dollywood. I'm not joking. My mother was the stained glass master craftsman from there for 25 years.
Paul Roberts: So have you met Dolly?
Travis Goodspeed: Briefly as a child. She was nice. But at the time I didn't understand that she's one of those few celebrities that might deserve that sort of recognition.
Paul Roberts: Yeah. She's a pretty amazing person. Really interesting. Okay, so grew up in and around Dollywood.
Travis Goodspeed: [00:01:00] Yeah, and then having a home stained glass laboratory, I got to grow up with soldering equipment and wire cutters and fires and all of that stuff, basically from birth.
Paul Roberts: I haven't been to Dollywood, is there a lot of stained glass?
Travis Goodspeed: Okay, so Dollywood is different from like Disney World or Disneyland in that it, it takes place on like some fictionalized American frontier. And on that frontier you need local craftsmen because the trade routes are garbage. And anything from, the settled part of the country is very expensive.
As a way to keep the scenery, they have functioning antique crafts there. There's a working blacksmith, there's a carriage maker, blown glass, stained glass. And all of these people are building these real things. Like you can buy a carriage from the carriage maker, hitch it up to your horses and ride it around town.
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