Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who went on to leak classified U.S. government information about the agency’s operations and capabilities in 2013, is now at work designing a special iPhone 6 case that aims to prevent data interception by snoopers, such as foreign governments.
Snowden, along with colleague Andrew “bunnie” Huang, recently unveiled the special case concept at a one-day “Forbidden Research” conference at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab, according to a July 22 story by Fortune. Snowden proposes the special case to help protect high-profile journalists from being spied upon by foreign governments as they cover stories, the story reported.
The special case is essentially a protective hardware device that would wrap around an iPhone and “alert a person whenever that handset leaked location data,” according to Forbes. Snowden made his presentation via livestream video from Russia, where he now lives since his NSA data leaks were unveiled.
The special case is needed by journalists in high-risk locations abroad, Snowden said, because they “are not able to trust that their phones will keep their whereabouts quiet, even when set to ‘airplane mode,'” the story continued. That surveillance can be performed by foreign intelligence agencies and hackers who can “compromise the handsets with malicious software to make them appear safe, when really the devices are tattling,” the story reported.
A journalist for The Sunday Times of London, Marie Colvin, was killed by the Syrian Army in an artillery strike in 2012, Snowden alleged in his presentation, after her broadcasts were intercepted by the army, the story reported. The army potentially used the radio transmitter and GPS, WiFi, Bluetooth and other receivers in her phone to help locate her. The special case “is designed to detect signals from these features and notify a person on a separate display when they’re active,” according to Fortune.
“Front-line journalists risk their lives to report from conflict regions,” wrote Snowden and Huang in a 16-page paper they released about their project. “Casting a spotlight on atrocities, their updates can alter the tides of war and outcomes of elections. As a result, front-line journalists are high-value targets, and their enemies will spare no expense to silence them.”
That’s where smartphones can be both a huge help and a serious danger to journalists, they wrote. “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.”
Even when phones are placed in airplane mode, they are still providing signals that can be tracked, the paper continues. “Turning off radios by entering airplane mode is no defense; for example, on iPhones since iOS 8.2, GPS is active in airplane mode. Furthermore, airplane mode is a ‘soft switch’—the graphics on the screen have no essential correlation with the hardware state. Malware packages, peddled by hackers at a price accessible by private individuals, can activate radios without any indication from the user interface; 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.”
To block such activity, Snowden and Huang envision a device that can “monitor radio activity using a measurement tool contained in a phone-mounted battery case,” they wrote. “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 iPhone 6 was chosen for experiments because it is believed to be used heavily by journalists, they wrote.
“Now that a set of viable signals from the handsets has been identified for introspection, the next step is refining the system for field deployment,” they wrote. “Over the coming year, we hope to prototype and verify the introspection engine’s abilities.”
If such research is successful, “the [Freedom of the Press Foundation] may move to seek the necessary funding to develop and maintain a supply chain” to build such a device, they wrote. “This would enable the FPF to deploy modified iPhone 6 devices for field service among journalists in high-risk situations.”
Snowden leaked a wide array of confidential documents about U.S government internet surveillance efforts and is considered a traitor by some people and a respected whistleblower by others.
In July 2013 he received a Pwnie Award from the organizers of the Black Hat security conference for his NSA-related revelations.