Anonabox project accused of fraud

October 16, 2014 | 09:03

Tags: #crowd-funding #fraud #open-hardware #openwrt #privacy #router #safeplug #scam #tor

Companies: #anonabox #kickstarter #open-source

Anonabox, a crowd-funded project to create a privacy-enhancing wireless router, has been accused of misleading its backers by claiming off-the-shelf hardware as a custom and open design.

Based on the same general principle as the Safeplug, a repurposed Pogoplug storage gateway turned Tor router, the Anonabox is a tiny router featuring twin network ports and integrated wireless. The brainchild of August Germar, the device's Kickstarter page makes several claims: that as the result of four rounds of prototyping the team 'created a model with 64MB of memory and a 580MHz CPU;' that the team 'designed a simple, minimalist case in plain white to house it;' that the first-generation prototype was 'the only one with off the shelf hardware;' and that 'it is completely open source, and open hardware.' It's a strong sell, and one that has succeeded: at the time of writing, Germar had smashed his original $7,500 goal with nearly $600,000 raised from over 9,000 backers.

Sadly, all is not what it seems. Eagle-eyed users have spotted distinct similarities between the team's supposed fourth-generation prototype device and an off-the-shelf wireless router available for less than $20 shipped from China. During an Ask Me Anything (AMA) thread on the social networking site Reddit, Germar posted additional pictures of the device and its circuit board - images that were soon found to show the same model number as the generic Chinese hardware. Coupled with evidence that the device runs a near-unmodified OpenWRT build complete with default password, many are calling the validity of the entire campaign into question.

Germar's apparent dishonesty isn't simply limited to his Kickstarter page, either. During an interview with Wired Germar indicated that the device was custom-designed by his team to be compact enough to hide in a bodily orifice - right down to its rounded corners - before admitting in a follow-up call yesterday that the hardware was indeed 'created from a stock board sourced from the Chinese supplier Gainstrong,' to which Germar requested the supplied add increased storage, described by the author as 'a partial reversal' of his earlier claims.

This partial retraction to Wired comes despite a further post to Reddit in which August continues to claim the device as a custom design created by an electrical engineer based on his specifications: 'I think people are thinking that the term from 'scratch' means I created some whole new totally unheard of thing, but the truth is, devices like this exist and you can buy them, they just don't have the specs that I wanted, so I got an electrical engineer to help design a board with the specs I wanted. Its possible that the plans for a simple board like this are part of an introduction to engineering class somewhere for all I know,' he added by way of explanation for the similarity to the Chinese board - even down to the model number printed on the PCB and the presence of unused USB traces.

Critics of Germar's tactics have reported the campaign to Kickstarter for its apparent dishonesty, but at the time of writing the project was still live and accepting additional backers.
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