National Security Agency whistleblower and fugitive Edward Snowden is getting into the hardware business.
Snowden, who has received asylum in Russia, has teamed up with American hacker Andrew “Bunnie” Huang to design an iPhone case that can detect when the handset’s radio is transmitting. Essentially, the case will let the owner of the phone know if he or she is being spied on. The device was designed with journalists, lawyers and human rights advocates in mind.
“Unfortunately, journalists can be betrayed by their own tools. Their smartphones, an essential tool for communicating with sources and the outside world–as well as for taking photos and authoring articles–are also the perfect tracking device,” reads a report from Snowden and Huang. “Legal barriers barring the access to unwitting phone transmissions are failing because of the precedent set by the US’s “third-party doctrine,” which holds that metadata on such signals enjoys no legal protection. As a result, governments and powerful political institutions are gaining access to comprehensive records of phone emissions unwittingly broadcast by device owners. This leaves journalists, activists, and rights workers in a position of vulnerability.”
Here is how the device works: If the owner puts his or her phone in airplane mode, that would normally eliminate signals going in or out. If signals are still emitting, the device will detect them and notify the user that he or she is under surveillance.
“Our work proposes to monitor radio activity using a measurement tool contained in a phone-mounted battery case,” reads the report.“We call this tool an introspection engine. The introspection engine has the capability to alert a reporter of a dangerous situation in real-time. The core principle is simple: if the reporter expects radios to be off, alert the user when they are turned on.”
The device, which will have an introspection engine and will “look and behave like a typical battery case for the iPhone 6” runs on open-source software. Signal monitoring is done independently of the phone’s processor — this helps to prevent false positive readings. The device can also detect unwanted Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connections.
The case, thus far, is a prototype and is not available for sale. But that could change if the prototype proves successful.
“Over the coming year, we hope to prototype and verify the introspection engine’s abilities,” the report reads. “As the project is run largely through volunteer efforts on a shoestring budget, it will proceed at a pace reflecting the practical limitations of donated time. If the prototype proves successful, the FPF may move to seek the necessary funding to develop and maintain a supply chain. This would enable the FPF to deploy modified iPhone 6 devices for field service among journalists in high-risk situations.”