Grand Idea Studio
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Security & Privacy


A tool to explore optical data transmissions and covert channels

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Blinkenlights are cool, but blinkenlights that send secret messages that are undetectable to the human eye are even cooler. OpticSpy is an open source hardware module for exploring and experimenting with optical data transmissions. It captures, amplifies, and converts an optical signal into a digital form that can be analyzed or decoded with a computer.

With OpticSpy, electronics hobbyists and hardware hackers can search for covert channels existing on modern devices, add optical data transfer functionality to a project, or capture and decode signals from remote controls and other consumer electronics that intentionally send information through light waves.

OpticSpy’s design is based on Maxim Integrated’s AN1117: Small Photodiode Receiver Handles Fiber-Optic Data Rates to 800kbps application note. We’ve added potentiometers for fine-tuning of a particular target signal, an on-board USB-to-serial interface for easy connection to a host computer, status indicator LEDs, and test points for observing each stage of signal processing. It has been successfully tested with both visible and near infrared light sources. Depending on the implementation of the LED transmission code on the target device, the LED can appear to be continuously on even though it’s blinking faster than the human eye can detect. That’s cool!

Why OpticSpy?

I’ve been playing around with optical covert channels for the past couple of years and wanted to create a simple device to look for and decode data hidden in optical signals. I thought providing OpticSpy as a fully assembled product would help others get more easily involved with optoelectronics.

Uses & Application Ideas

Features & Specifications

OpticSpy is powered from the host computer’s USB port and uses an FTDI FT231X USB-to-Serial IC to provide the USB connectivity (drivers available directly from FTDI). When connected to a computer, OpticSpy will appear as a Virtual COM port and will have a COM port number automatically assigned to it. You can then use a terminal program (such as HyperTerminal, PuTTY, CoolTerm, minicom, or screen) to communicate with OpticSpy. Communication settings will vary depending on the type of optical transmission and encoding/modulation used. For our demonstrations (see the Demonstrations/Example Code section below), we are transmitting printable ASCII data via the target’s software- or hardware-based UART.

In the event that the device sending optical data is using a different encoding or modulation scheme not supported by a standard terminal program, you can preempt the FT231X interface by connecting a logic analyzer, Arduino, or any other tool capable of processing raw digital signals to the OpticSpy’s TP5 (Comparator Output) test point.

Bandwidth & Range

OpticSpy supports signals up to 800 kbps per the application note on which this design is based. I haven’t fully characterized the lower and upper speeds, but my experiments have ranged from 2400 to 115.2 kbps with no loss of data.

We’re using a Vishay Semiconductors BPW21R photodiode for the front end, which has an ideal spectral response from 420 to 675 nm. As opposed to typical photodiodes, which have a peak response for near IR, the BPW21R approximates the human eye making it more suitable for visible light. It is still quite sensitive to IR, allowing us to support a wider range of wavelengths.

OpticSpy is designed for higher bandwidth at the expense of sensitivity. The brighter the transmitting signal, the better the receive range will be. For my visible light transmission experiments, I’ve achieved ~1 inch with Tomu, which has a very bright LED, and directly on the surface with a TP-Link router, which has a not-so-bright LED shining through a lightpipe.

For near IR signals, like those from a TV remote control, distance is greater. With the Parallax Hackable Electronic Badge, which has a 1608-sized IR LED, I’ve gotten to ~3 inches. Depending on the OpticSpy gain settings, you can also use it to filter out the IR carrier/modulation (typically 30-56 kHz), killing two birds (capture and demodulation) with one stone. This is due to the high gain of the amplifiers reducing frequency response of the unit.

Demonstrations/Example Code

The following demonstrations transmit printable ASCII data with NRZ (Non-Return-to-Zero) encoding to emulate a standard UART interface.

All OpticSpy design documentation (including schematics, PCB/Gerber plots, and bill-of-materials) and code for the above examples are available on my Optical Covert Channels project page.


This project isn’t just based on theoretical concepts - optical covert channels and data transmissions via LEDs actually happen in the real world! I was inspired and motivated by many prior works (and a few recent ones), mostly involving methods of secretly exfiltrating data from compromised devices. Some of my favorites are listed here:

There are many ways to convert light into digital signals, most of which consist of a photodetector front-end and some amplification circuitry. OpticSpy is just one option, which I created specifically to make exploring different types of optical data transmissions easier. Here are a few other projects that could supplement your optical receiver toolkit or provide background information on optoelectronics:

Parts List

ManufacturerManufacturer Part #ReferenceQuantityDescription
KemetC0805C104K5RACTUC1, C2, C3, C4, C5, C6, C7, C11, C149Capacitor, 0.1 uF, 50 V, Ceramic, 10%, X7R, 0805
KemetC0805C103K5RACTUC81Capacitor, 0.01 uF, 50 V, Ceramic, 10%, X7R, 0805
SamsungCL21C470JBANNNCC9, C102Capacitor, 47 pF, 50 V, Ceramic, 5%, C0G, 0805
Vishay Sprague293D106X0016A2TE3C12, C132Capacitor, 10 uF, 16 V, Tantalum, 20%, Size A
YageoCC0805KRX7R9BB471C151Capacitor, 470 pF, 50 V, Ceramic, 10%, X7R, 0805
VishaySemiconductor BPW21RD11Photodiode, Silicon PN, 420-675 nm, TO-5
KingbrightAPT2012SYCKD2, D32LED, yellow clear, 150 mcd, 2.0 Vf, 590 nm, 0805
TDKMPZ2012S221AT000L11Inductor, Ferrite Bead, 220 R @ 100 MHz, 3 A, 0805
Hirose ElectricUX60-MB-5S8P11Connector Mini-USB, 5-pin, SMT w/ PCB mount
ON SemiconductorMMBT3904Q11Transistor, NPN, 40 V, 200 mA, SOT23-3
AnyAnyR11Resistor, 100k, 5%, 1/8 W, 0805
BournsPVG5A203C03R00R2, R122Resistor, variable trimmer, 20k, 1/8 W, SMD
AnyAnyR3, R6, R113Resistor, 1k, 5%, 1/8 W, 0805
BournsPVG5A504C03R00R41Resistor, variable trimmer, 500k, 1/8 W, SMD
AnyAnyR5, R15, R163Resistor, 4.7k, 5%, 1/8 W, 0805
AnyAnyR7, R8, R93Resistor, 10k, 5%, 1/8 W, 0805
BournsPVG5A105C03R00R101Resistor, variable trimmer, 1.0M, 1/8 W, SMD
AnyAnyR13, R142Resistor, 27 ohm, 5%, 1/8 W, 0805
C&K ComponentsJS202011CQNSW11Switch, DPDT slide, 300 mA @ 6 VDC, PCB mount
Maxim IntegratedMAX4124EUK+TU1, U22IC, Operational Amplifier, Rail-to-Rail, SOT23-5
Maxim IntegratedMAX985EUK+TU31IC, comparator, push-pull, rail-to-rail, SOT23-5
FTDIFT231XS-RU41IC, USB-to-UART bridge, SSOP20
MicrochipMIC5205-3.3YM5U51Linear regulator, LDO, 3.3 V, 150 mA, SOT23-5

In the Press

Hackster News

"...with consumer Li-Fi looking promising, many of us are developing a growing interest in the technology, and OpticSpy is here just in time to help."



"The demos of OpticSpy pulling data out of a seemingly solid red LED were a blast to see."

Engadget Logo


"The interesting aspect is that the light can pulsate at a frequency that's imperceptible to humans. An entire wall of LEDs could be displaying an ad or art and a single LED could be used to transmit a covert missive."

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Produced by Grand Idea Studio in Portland, OR.

Sold and shipped by Crowd Supply.


Get your hands on a single OpticSpy unit and dive into the world of optical communications interfaces.

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From the Tomu project.

Perfect as an optical transmitter for your OpticSpy to decode. Example code available.

A computer in your USB port! One Tomu board with two buttons, two LEDs, and a 25 MHz CPU, all fully assembled and tested.

$25 $8 US Shipping / $18 Worldwide

About the Team

Grand Idea Studio

Portland, OR  ·

Grand Idea Studio is a product design, development, and licensing firm with a focus on consumer devices and open source modules for electronics hobbyists. It is run by computer engineer and hardware hacker Joe Grand.

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