The former NSA contractor partnered with a well-known hardware hacker to develop a case that prevents government-funded adversaries from snooping.
You may have read that when journalists visited U.S. exile Edward Snowden in Hong Kong shortly after he released sensitive NSA data about government surveillance activities, he asked them to put their phones in the fridge. This was done to block any radio signals that could be used to silently activate the devices’ microphones or cameras.
Considering that the former NSA contractor is somewhat of an expert on the various ways the U.S. government spies on its civilians, it seems fitting he recently partnered with known hardware hacker Andrew Huang to develop a design for a case-like device that wires into an iPhone and prevents it from snitching.
WIRED relays that the device will monitor the electrical signals sent to its internal antennas and offer a constant check on whether one’s phone’s radios are transmitting. Many attempt to do this with the “airplane mode” feature, but both Huang and Edward affirm that their device will be an infinitely more trustworthy method.
Their ultimate aim is to offer strong privacy guarantees to smartphone owners who seek to shield their phones from government-funded adversaries with advanced hacking and surveillance capabilities. Reportedly, this feature could be especially handy for journalists who enter hostile foreign countries and don’t want their whereabouts known.
Mid-July, Snowden entered the MIT Media Lab via live-stream and explained the product he and Huang are working on. He said:
“One good journalist in the right place at the right time can change history. This makes them a target, and increasingly tools of their trade are being used against them.”
Whether in Syria, Iraq, or another war-torn country, revealing one’s location could be life-threatening. Huang elaborated 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 “introspection engine” would be an add-on modification for an iPhone. Appearing similar to an external battery case, the device would have tiny probe wires that would “snake into the iPhones innards” through its SIM-card slot and attach to test points on the phone’s circuit board.
“Those wires would read the electrical signals to the two antennas in the phone that are used by its radios, including GPS, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and cellular modem. And by identifying the signals that transmit those different forms of radio information, the modified phone would warn you with alert messages or an audible alarm if its radios transmit anything when they’re meant to be off. Huang says it could possibly even flip a “kill switch” to turn off the phone automatically.”
The pair claims that their device will be the best solution to protecting one’s whereabouts and private information. One might think that a Faraday bag, which blocks all radio signals, would work just as well, but apparently, it can still leak radio information. In addition, clever malware can make an iPhone appear as if it’s been switched off even when it’s not. Snowden pointed this out during an NBC interview in 2014.
Edward Snowden is especially invested in ensuring any device he carries doesn’t leak his whereabouts or personal information, as he’s been a target since he leaked important NSA documents to the public in 2013.
“Wireless devices are kind of like kryptonite to me,” says Snowden.
At present, the pair’s iPhone modification is little more than a design. However, they’ve tested their method of picking up the electrical signals sent to the latest version of the iPhone’s antenna and verified that they can spot its different radio messages.
A prototype hasn’t even yet been built, let alone a product, but it is more than likely that within the next year, one will be presented to the public and tested. It is the ultimate aim of the activists to create a supply chain in China of modified iPhones so the public may protect themselves from snooping Big Brother.
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