Edward Snowden’s New Device Will Warn If Hackers Are Extracting Your Mobile Data
The attachment can prevent governmental agencies and criminals from tapping into your iPhone without warning
As the modern day iconoclast for digital privacy, Edward Snowden is a name commonly associated with issues of mass surveillance, government secrecy and the delicate balance between national security and legislative privacy. Legend has it, when he met with reporters in Hong Kong as an NSA whistleblower some three years ago, he crammed all the mobile devices present in the room in a fridge so as to block covert radio signals from activating anyone’s camera or microphone. Fast forward to the present, and Snowden is still tackling the same dilemma, only this time he has backup. Working alongside well known hardware hacker Andrew “Bunnie” Huang, Snowden has recently unveiled designs for a device which encapsulates and plugs into your iPhone as a means of detecting electrical signals sent to its internal antennas.
Eager to offer robust privacy guarantees to the average smartphone user, the two have laid claim that their method is years ahead of turning on ‘airplane mode’ when it comes to knowing that your phone’s radios are indeed off, as the built-in feature can apparently be hacked or spoofed.
And though anyone can benefit from a foolproof layer of security, Huang and Snowden are looking to aid traveling reporters in hostile foreign countries in particular.
“One good journalist in the right place at the right time can change history,” reasoned Snowden in a video stream linked to the MIT Media Lab. “This makes them a target, and increasingly tools of their trade are being used against them.”
Unlike Snowden’s radical work with WikiLeaks, in which he gambled with jail time and defamation of character to expose truths hidden by the United States government, these journalists literally risk their lives in their day-to-day fieldwork.
“They’re overseas, in Syria or Iraq, and those [governments] have exploits that cause their phones to do things they don’t expect them to do,” added Huang in an interview with Wired. “You can think your phone’s radios are off, and not telling your location to anyone, but actually still be at risk.”
The duo’s response to radio snitching is a physical attachment resembling a battery case in appearance, only that it functions as what the two call an ‘introspection engine.’ Miniature probe wires make their way into an iPhone’s circuitry via the SIM-card slot (the SIM card is subsequently moved to an alternative entry point within the radio detecting device), wherein the wires read electrical signals flowing through the two antennas used by radios in cases such as Bluetooth, GPS, Wi-Fi and cellular modem. Then, by categorizing the transmitted signals associated with different forms of radio information, the modded phone can send alert messages or even sound an alarm if its radios transmit anything during the time they’re meant to be off. Huang even points to the possibility of a ‘kill-switch,’ which would automatically power down the compromised device.
Since his escape to Russia (where he’s been granted asylum and has been staying ever since), Snowden has been living a life devoid of smartphones for fear of getting tracked via cellular signals. Perhaps his device will enable him to once more return to the realm of app stores and touchscreens, what he currently deems a kryptonite not only for his privacy, but his freedom. He notes that since 2013, he hasn’t “seen any indication” that the U.S. government has been able to determine his exact location.
Interestingly enough, Snowden and Huang have yet to meet face to face, though the two have reportedly been in close contact via encrypted messaging app Signal. Snowden first met Huang thanks to a lead by television produces at Vice, who were looking for hardware hacking experts when the pieces fell into place. With Huang’s hacking expertise and Snowden’s blend of deeply rooted paranoia and high profile designation, the device they plan on building can yield a tremendously progressive step towards reclaiming digital privacy. And though the two don’t have any current means of physical interaction (which would likely expedite the process of materialization), as hacker and fugitive they’ve both managed to master the art of discrete yet effective communication in their own right.
While no prototype exists to demonstrate the full capabilities, Snowden and Huang have released a detailed paper explaining their methodology, and hope to develop a prototype over the course of the year followed by a supply chain in China. And, to prevent any mistrust of their overseas manufacturers, the device’s code and hardware will be entirely open-source.
Bottom Photo: Photo: Mim Adkins