Edward Snowden, a long-time source of controversy between people who view him as a hero and those who say he is a traitor after he leaked information about an extensive internet and phone surveillance program run by American intelligence, has reportedly designed a device to warn consumers if their cell phones are being used to spy on them.
The device, designed by Snowden and hacker Andrew “Bunnie” Huang, was presented at the MIT Media Lab. Snowden and Huang developed a device that fits like a case over an iPhone. That case monitors iPhone’s electrical signals and can warn consumers if the iPhone is transmitting. The idea is that people who might be targets of anyone who could be targeted by hackers—such as journalists in hostile territories—could use the device to keep themselves safe.
“Unfortunately, journalists can be betrayed by their own tools,” Huang and Snowden write in a publication that accompanied the presentation. “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.”
Even countries as democratic as the U.S. do not offer legal protection for signals, meaning it’s legal for governments and other institutions to access those signals and phone emissions. In some cases, the results can be deadly, such as the death of reporter Marie Colvin, allegedly killed by the Syrian government after her location was discovered through intercept devices that monitored her cellphone communications.
Consumers who think they are protected when they enter airplane mode aren’t as safe as they think, either. According to Huang and Snowden, even in airplane mode, hackers can compromise cellphones without the user’s knowledge.
“…trusting a phone that has been hacked to go into airplane mode is like trusting a drunk person to judge if they are sober enough to drive,” they write.
The device is described as an “introspection engine” and would fit over the cellphone. Wires from the device would access the phone through its SIM-card slot—the SIM card would be moved to the case—and those wires would read the electrical signals sent to the phone’s antennas. The phone would then provide an alarm or alert message if radios transmit signals when they are not supposed to.
So far, the device is still in the design phase. No prototype has been built, but the plan is to develop that prototype over the next year, although it is largely managed by volunteers. If the prototype is successfully developed and tested, the goal is to develop devices for journalists in high-risk situations.