When it comes to security and surveillance, there is no doubt that Edward Snowden is one of the first people who come to mind. You wouldn't be wrong in thinking of him, either — he became famous when he revealed thousands of classified NSA documents in 2013 and has remained a major voice for digital privacy ever since.
Therefore, it should hardly be surprising that Snowden, who once asked reporters to place their phones in the fridge to block any radio signals that could be used to silently activate their devices' microphones or cameras in a Hong Kong hotel, is returning to the smartphone radio surveillance problem by offering a solution that is more manageable than a hotel mini-bar.
Along with Andrew "Bunnie" Huang, known for reverse engineering parts of the original Xbox and security vulnerabilities in microSD cards, Snowden revealed, at the MIT Media Lab on Thursday, a design for a case-like attachment to modify an iPhone that would let the user know whenever the device's radio transmitters are active.
For Snowden, the need for such a device is simple: the current methods for blocking radio signals on consumer devices, such as turning off radios via airplane mode, sealing it within a Faraday cage or straight-up turning the phone off, are not 100 percent viable solutions when you, the owner, have to worry about the government spying on you.
The hope is that reporters and journalists who are off on an assignment in a high-risk location can do their jobs without fearing that their phones are being tracked or monitored, as well as shutting down all radio connectivity while still retaining the use of their device.
It's a noble effort, but as recent developments suggest, there are plenty of options available to certain governments that want their secrets to remain secrets.
At any rate, the device, which is referred to as an "introspection engine," is made up of an attachment for a modified iPhone that physically wires into the antennas inside the phone for GPS, Bluetooth, cellular connectivity and Wi-Fi through the SIM card slot. Once everything is set up, the device can monitor radio transmissions, alert users of any output when the radios should be off and even offers a kill-switch if all else fails.
As things stand, however, this device is no more than an idea that has moved to the basic testing stage. No prototype or product is in the works so far, and there is no estimation for when things will be up and running. Fortunately, there is a higher chance of this becoming an actual device one day when compared with other concepts of its ilk, as Huang has exhibited past experience with hardware design in the form of the open-source Novena laptop. When things are ready to go, he and Snowden hope to work with manufacturers in China to make a final production model that would be both open-source and open-hardware.
The research paper where you can read up on the methodology behind the introspection engine can be read here.