Edward Snowden together with hardware hacker Andre Huang has created a device that could detect and prevent surveillance and radio-snitching on your iPhone. Snowden, an anti-surveillance crusader, is concerned that authorities can get undue access to the data of millions of iPhone users without public knowledge (of course). This innovation is raised from the concern that your iPhone might be giving you away by sending transmissions about your location.
The satellite and cellular communications can be intercepted by agencies, which can use them to get the exact whereabouts of journalists, for example, and arrest them against their rights. On benefitting journalists, both men explained that newsmen and newswomen trying to carry their devices into countries with repressive governments would be able to conceal their location. “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”. Snowden added. “They’re overseas, in Syria or Iraq, and those [governments] have exploits that cause their phones to do the things they don’t expect them to do”. Huang explained further to WIRED in an interview before the MIT presentation. “You can think your phone’s radios are off, and not telling your location to anyone, but actually still be at risk”.
It will be recalled that the former NSA staffer once asked reporters in Hong Kong to put their phones in a refrigerator just before he let the cat out of the sack concerning NSA clandestine activities. The device will block radio signals that might be deployed to secretly activate the devices’ microphones or cameras.
A case or not?
The device bears semblance with an iPhone case that wires into the phone to monitor the electrical signals sent to its internal antennas. The aim is to do an intermittent check on whether your iPhone’s radios are transmitting by any chance. The monitoring tool can fit into a phone battery case.
The wires are expected to read the electrical signals to the two antennas in the phone that are used by its radios, including the GPS, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and modem. Phone owners are notified via messages or an alarm if their radios happen to transmit anything when in fact, they are supposed to be off.
Snowden and Huang briefed experts on their tool during the Forbidden Research talk at MIT’s Media Lab and published a paper that navigates the problem and their proposed solution. Their tool is an open-source and user-inspectable introspection engine that monitors radio transmissions and notifies the iPhone owner when their device is transmitting its location even when it is in airplane mode.
The hardware is supposed to be placed outside the scope of the phone’s CPU and other internal hardware, allowing it to operate freely without being detected by the monitoring and tracking systems embedded into the phone.
The device cannot be detected by the phone’s operating system the way it is designed. Snowden and his partner want their proposed security system to be accessible to a wide range of users and have built it with an intuitive interface that requires only minimal input from the user.
As a test, Snowden and Huang chose the iPhone 6 as the first for field development of their tool. iPhone 6 was used because of its proliferation among journalists. Huang’s and Snowden’s cutting-edge remedy to the existing privacy problem is to build a modification for the iPhone 6.
The device’s add-on would appear to be slightly different from an external battery case with a small mono-color screen. However it would “function as a type of miniature, form-fitting oscilloscope: tiny probe wires from that external device would snake into the iPhone’s innards through its SIM-card slot to attach to test points on the phone’s circuit board”.
Regardless of concerns, Huang clarifies that their intention was to allow reporters to reliably disable a phone’s radio signals while still engaging the device’s other functions such as taking photographs, and recording video and audio.
Can it be trusted?
Edward Snowden and Andrew Huang have assured the tech world that their new device can be trusted and is borne out of the will to militate against government’s eavesdropping. The two have said it can guarantee strong privacy to Smartphone owners in other to protect their phones from advanced hacking and surveillance capabilities.
The pair has also secured iPhone schematics and components from China’s electronics markets and used this information to change the phone’s hardware and aid in the design of their “introspection engine”.
While they choose to stick to iPhone and its radio hardware, Snowden and Huang are hopeful that over time, their technology would secure a global appeal and consequently expand to other core hardware systems and other cell phone accessories too.