Meet Flipper, the Tamagotchi You Feed by Hacking Stuff

A group of hackers created the handheld device and its adorable dolphin resident to make hacking more accessible to the masses.
January 5, 2021, 2:00pm
A person holds a white handheld device featureing the image of a cartoon dolphin on the screen
Screen Shot 2021-02-24 at 3
Hacking. Disinformation. Surveillance. CYBER is Motherboard's podcast and reporting on the dark underbelly of the internet.

In the hacking world, advanced tools for snooping on networks and cracking devices are not known for being easy to use—or aesthetically attractive. But over the past year, a team of Russian hackers have designed and mass-produced a powerful handheld hacking device that takes the form of an adorable virtual pet you can play with by hacking into stuff. 

Flipper Zero, which was inspired by the cybernetic dolphin from Johnny Mnemonic, is set to begin shipping in February, and it promises to revolutionize everything from white hat penetration testing to teenage hacking hijinks. The dolphin that lives inside each device evolves the more its owner interacts with it, and gets mad when it’s not frequently in use. Its creators say it holds left-wing political views, listens to techno, and has no pronounced gender identity. 

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The $100 device is smaller than a cell phone and is controlled by a microcomputer similar in size and function to the Raspberry Pi. Like the Pwnagotchi—a network trolling device with an open source platform and Tamagotchi-like interface—Flipper is a utility hacker tool designed for all levels of technical expertise. Unlike the Pwnagotchi, Flipper Zero is equipped to intercept all kinds of frequencies, not just Wi-Fi.

Alexander Kulagin, one of Flipper’s co-creators, says that the initial idea for the product arose during his time working on 4G networks in remote areas where the need arose for durable pen-testing tools. Ideas for the device then began to percolate in hackerspaces back in St. Petersburg and Moscow. When Kulagin and his co-founders started a Kickstarter to fund the project, they blew past their initial goal of $60,000, raising almost $5 million through 40,000 backers.

“Flipper was born in hackerspaces, but while the modern meaning of this word “hacker” is to break or steal, its initial meaning was to learn something deeply," Kulagin told Motherboard. "In Russia there was a wide range of white hat security guys and [bug] bounty hunters, and everybody there was obsessed with finding and learning the next big thing.”

The Flipper combines all the essential hardware tools for hacking in a small package. It sports a 433/868 MHz transceiver for communicating with remotes, traffic barriers, Internet of Things sensors and remote keyless systems. It also has a built-in RFID and NFC reader, enabling it to clone physical access devices like key fobs and signal cards.

A diagram showing the contents of the Flipper Zero hacking device.

A diagram showing the contents of the Flipper Zero hacking device.

The device also functions as a remote control for virtually any device with an infrared sensor. It has physical GPIO pins to communicate with hardware and test protocols and the ability to connect wirelessly to any Bluetooth device.

“While we wanted to make a really durable tool for professionals, we also wanted Flipper to have a big cultural impact, where lots of people can get familiar with coding, with electronics development, hardware development," said Kulagin. "It can be pretty hard to learn these kinds of skills so we wanted to lower the barrier to entry, and give young people, old people, anyone who wants to learn a fun device to break into coding with.”

Initial concerns about COVID-19’s impact on the production of Flipper have largely subsided, and Kulagin says that the product should be ready to ship from Chinese manufacturing facilities in February. Kulagin hopes that Flipper's open source platform will incubate an online community of novice and expert coders to build apps for Flipper and push its technical capabilities to their limits.

More importantly, Flipper's creators hope that the dolphin, which has a different name on every device, will attract users who might otherwise struggle to break into the hacker community.

“One reason we had success with Flipper is that these days, everybody wants to be a hacker, but not everybody knows how to become one," said Kulagin. "We wanted to show that hacking is actually for everyday use and that it's not some evil thing, it’s just a skill set like anything else. We get a lot of comments like ‘what if kids use this to break into my gate or my office or my house?’ We always say that if a kid can hack you with a $100 dollar tool, maybe it’s time to upgrade your security.”