Andrew “bunnie” Huang may not be a household name, but he’s a star in the world of electronics.
A self-styled “hardware hacker,” Huang works with physical machines rather than the programs that run on them. In his 2003 guide “Hacking the Xbox: An Introduction to Reverse Engineering,” Huang gives step-by-step instructions on how to modify the console — for example, how to change its signature green light to a blue one.
The release of “Hacking the Xbox” was disrupted by legal threats from Microsoft, foreshadowing Huang’s 2016 lawsuit against the U.S. government over part of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).
“I’ve felt my rights chilled by Section 1201 since its inception in 1998,” Huang told NBC News. “[It] made it legally hazardous to, for example, take apart and explore the insides of an Xbox.”
Huang's new book, "The Hardware Hacker" acts as both a career retrospective for Huang, as well as a guide to how the “stuff” we buy is made.
As a youth in Michigan, Huang spent his summer vacations “tinkering in the basement,” and is worried that the DMCA will scare people off the opportunity to learn.
“When I was a graduate student, I saw a generation of younger engineers growing up stunted and fearful under [the DMCA’s] shadow,” he said. “In multiple startups since, I saw numerous, legitimate business opportunities stymied by the statute.”
Huang’s reservations about the law were reinforced by his trips to Shenzhen, a city in China with a vastly different attitude to inventions. In Shenzhen, a gongkai (literally “open work”) system means that creators trade ideas and services, rather than protect them with patents.
“The West is primarily irked about the fact that a phone resembles in shape or trademark a particular design,” Huang explained. “Most of gongkai is about sharing [the circuits inside].”
He adds, “Just like memes, when everyone agrees to share something, it’s no longer theft....Anyone else can come along and take yours too. The trick is getting an entire society to agree that a particular class of items should be shared, not sold.”
While America might laugh at China’s knock-off iPhones and flagrant disregard for copyright law, Huang wagers that “any region or culture that gets the reputation for copycats is the region or culture to watch.”
That said, Huang still gets a kick out of the hardware he finds in China. In “The Hardware Hacker,” he details the eye-popping inventory of Huaqiangbei, Shenzhen’s most famous electronics market.
“From an American perspective, I think seeing military hardware apparently stripped from NATO missiles for sale on the market is pretty crazy.…In Huaqiangbei, you can get your paws on a few of these circuit boards if you know where to look,” he said.
Despite growing up in America, Huang is now based in Singapore. “It is a very friendly environment for small business,” he said. “[Its public programs] reduces operating costs for a startup by almost 10x when compared to operating out of the heart of Silicon Valley.”
The country’s proximity to China also means ease of access to Shenzhen’s factories.
Huang credits his perspectives on society, security, and ethics to his “isolated” upbringing. He was the only Chinese kid at his junior and high schools in Kalamazoo, Michigan, which he said made him an “outsider,” though he didn’t realize it at the time.
“I lived in a black/white racially segregated part of America, watching the power dynamics between dominant and subordinated classes, but I never really identified with either,” he said.
But Huang was not immune to harassment, which he now takes in stride. “It was the same few questions over and over again, plus some pulling eyes to be slanted and a couple of typical slurs, and then they’d get bored and leave me alone.”
He also recalled being “shocked to learn the privileges of being the majority” when he first travelled to Asia.
Huang’s says his biggest concern for the future of tech is that “we become slaves to technology, and in turn, we become slaves to those who can control it,” warning, “I do not believe that technologists as a whole are so benevolent as to resist the urge to create a de-facto slave class.”
This belief informs Huang’s work as a tech activist. One of his major projects is building an anti-surveillance iPhone mod with whistleblower Edward Snowden. “Currently, the hardware is built and mostly functional,” Huang reveals. “[It] can tell you when your phone’s radios are transmitting.”
He’s also currently working on a project called Love to Code, aimed at getting more people — especially young women — to learn about tech.
“I’m very excited about the mission of making technology more inclusive.” Huang said. “Nobody has to study computers, but everyone should feel there is a clear and unimpeded path to understanding and mastering them.”