Edward Snowden hasn't owned a smartphone since he began leaking classified NSA documents that exposed the United States government's global surveillance program. That may change soon, as Snowden is now working on a cellphone case that would detect and fight against government snooping.
The case, which Snowden refers to as an "introspection engine," would work by using a phone's SIM slot to monitor and shut down a phone's radios in the event of unauthorized access. The phone case would feature a simple monochromatic screen that alerts users when their phone is broadcasting any signals it isn't supposed to. The case will even be able to disable all radios on a phone to prevent governments or blackhat hackers from finding your location.
Snowden is collaborating with American hacker Andrew "bunnie" Huang on the project. Huang holds a PhD in Electrical Engineering at MIT and is best known for having hacked the Xbox.
So far, the phone case is in its design stage but Snowden and Huang plan on creating a working prototype within the year. Their plan is to work with supply chains in China to build iPhones modified with the case to offer to journalists and news organizations. The introspection engine's code will be open sourced, meaning anyone is free to modify and scrutinize the device.
Life or death
While most citizens won't require the level of security that this phone case provides, journalists and political dissidents will undoubtedly find it useful.
"One good journalist in the right place at the right time can change history," said Snowden speaking to a crowded MIT Media Lab via video stream. "This makes them a target, and increasingly tools of their trade are being used against them." Snowden cites the story of Marie Colvin, an American war reporter that was murdered by the Syrian government. Colvin's family claims she was being tracked via her electronic communications and as a result, was killed by a targeted bombing.
"Our approach is: state-level adversaries are powerful, assume the phone is compromised," says Huang speaking to WIRED. "Let's look at hardware-related signals that are extremely difficult to fake. We want to give a you-bet-your-life assurance that the phone actually has its radios off when it says it does."
Airplane mode on our phones claim to disable all communication radios like Bluetooth and WiFi, but the feature has been hacked and spoofed in the past. Snowden and Huang's phone case will ensure a phone's radios are in fact completely disabled.
The science behind the phone case is solid, but it's unclear whether consumers would want to use a device just to ensure that Airplane Mode really disables all communication. However, the phone case could proof invaluable to those looking to black out communication for their own safety.
For a full look at how the phone case will work, check out Snowden and Huang's paper, Against the Law: Countering Lawful Abuses of Digital Surveillance.
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