Virus Diary: Battling human virus now, computer virus later

MASONVILLE — Jeff Moe thought he was done with 3D printing for awhile.

But then a deadly pandemic gripped the world.

And then the governor called.

Moe had just completed the sale of Aleph Objects, the Loveland-based manufacturer of popular Lulzbot 3D printers, to FAME 3D in Fargo, North Dakota. Now he could concentrate on his new company, Fork Sand, which is dedicated to helping computer users protect their privacy.

But no, Jared Polis needed his skills and his contacts.

Masonville-based Fork Sand is selling a ULX35 Clone Linux-Capable Libre FPGA (field programmable gate array) circuit board that is programmable using a free software toolchain and designed for education, research and general purposes. Courtesy Fork Sand.

Frustrated by a slow federal response to urgent needs for ventilators, masks, test kits, and other equipment needed in the fight against the fast-spreading novel coronavirus, Polis on March 22 announced creation of an Innovation Response Team Task Force, involving industry leaders such as Brad Feld, co-founder of Boulder-based Foundry Group and Techstars; Matt Blumberg, who founded Broomfield-based email technology company Return Path 20 years ago, and Noel Ginsburg, a member of the Colorado Workforce Development Council.

“Gov. Polis contacted me because he had toured the 3D printing factory a few years ago when he was a congressman,” Moe said. Polis connected me with Noel Ginsburg, and Noel said they need 3D printed parts for medical face shields before injection molding is ready — and they need 10,000 of them a week!

“So I am rounding up who I can in Colorado, and the LulzBot cluster now owned by FAME 3D, to print the parts. We don’t have the design or specs yet,” Moe said, “but I am talking with someone at CU Denver who says they are working with hospitals in Denver to get them, and I’m trying to find out more.”

So Moe suddenly found himself part of a mobilizing effort every bit as urgent and broad-based as the one launched in World War II days. 

“I know some different companies that have a bunch of machines that could print these parts,” he said. “I have printed the parts myself but I’m looking for companies that have a lot of machines that can do that, or have a lot of people. I’m also talking to people in open-source communities. There are a lot of projects out there right now.”

Could this mean a financial windfall for Moe? Hardly. “Quite the opposite,” he said. “Negative monetization, maybe. 

“But there’s a lot of high-tech people in Colorado who want to do something, and we want to coordinate them as best we can to fight COVID-19,” he said. “We’re looking for designs for face shields, open-source ventilators, bag-valve masks that could be automated so humans don’t have to squeeze  them. We’re looking for parts for ventilators, test kit swabs … 

“I hope everyone knows how serious this is.”

Serious enough to put Moe’s new company on the back burner.

“My goal at Fork Sand is to make computing devices that secure and protect the privacy of the user,” Moe said. “Whereas most devices are made to track the user and they’re not designed from the user’s perspective, they’re designed from the manufacturer’s perspective. But there’s a lot of security holes and issues that we’ve seen every day now that are related to the larger picture of how we build and deploy these systems.

“At Fork Sand we’re basically starting from scratch with what is in the open-source community, and one of the things that’s been developed over the years is a new computer architecture that’s called RISC-V. Computers have for the most part been dominated by Intel’s architecture, which runs on laptops, servers and workstations, and then the ARM architecture, which runs on your telephones, fancy cars and imbedded devices,” he said. “Now, with RISC-V, people can develop computer chips without having to depend on Intel or ARM and can make open-source chips. RISC-V is doing for computer chips what Linux did for operating systems.

“With the open sourcing comes computer security,” he said. “One of the main tenets of computer security is that if you can’t audit it,  you have no way to tell whether it’s secure. Nowadays you can’t audit anything. You can’t see the source code to the hardware for your iPhone, let alone any of the software or apps. You need to have secure hardware, firmware, operating system and applications. So if any of those is insecure, your whole system can be compromised. We see that every single day — 100 cases a day nowadays.

So at Fork Sand, Moe is using FPGA (field-programmable gate array) chips. “We put the RISC-V architecture on that chip and then run Linux on that RISC-V architecture,” he said. “Once you get a RISC-V open-source board with a RISC-V chip on it, you would literally have the source code for the circuit board itself so you could audit every single chip on there. You could keep total control if you want to. You have literally every line of code for the computer architecture. You could build from the ground up and have the source code for everything.”

Development of the product is still very early and aimed at developers and cryptocurrency folks who understand the need and the technology, Moe said. “These are not meant for regular end users at this point. But once you have that secure system, you can start putting secure applications on top of that — but that’s way down the road.”

Moe said he has been building on others’ code and working on pulling the tool chain together, getting boards manufactured, “and also trying to make it so these boards can be made with as low technology as possible — something that could be made with a hackerspace or makerspace’s tools.”

His new company’s name, Fork Sand, is based on the techspeak in his profession. “Fork is when someone makes a new version of software,” he said. And Sand? “We’re dealing with earth, hardware. We’re taking public code — hardware — and forking it.”

Moe started an internet service provider in the 1990s and sold it to Front Range Internet in 2000. He also has hosted websites dedicated to free speech and free software, he said, but “mostly I’m a system administrator.”

Fork Sand is “still pretty close to pre-revenue,” Moe said. “I’ve done a handful of sales of secure boards to secure hackers. And I did sell some boards via OpenBazaar, which is actually a marketplace-driven, fully peer-to-peer site that uses cryptocurrencies. These sites will be growing as the user base keeps growing.

“Hey, pizzas are open-source, right? But you still go to Domino’s.”

Right now, though, he’s dropping everything to work on fighting the COVID-19 pandemic. But eventually he’ll get back to fighting computer-security issues.

“I’m developing a device that regular end users can have so they can securely communicate with others in their circle,” he said. “Right now it’s totally compromised. I’ve said we went from coronavirus to a computer virus.”

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