Edward Snowden might be stateless right now but that isn’t stopping him from doing work that benefits ordinary citizens around the world. At least that is what he believes.
Snowden, a former NSA contractor, has designed an iPhone hard case that blocks organizations such as CIA and NSA from wireless spying on your smartphone activities.
The design comes in the form of an add-on (a hardware one) that is able to thwart radio signals that might be used for spying by government (or non-government) agencies.
This effort from Snowden to guard the sanctity of private information further provides evidence that he is still trying to fight government mass surveillance programs.
It has been three years since Edward Snowden gained worldwide prominence after he had spilled NSA secrets to popular media sources such as The Guardian, New York Times and The Washington Post.
Snowden’s main campaign was against smartphone radio surveillance activities that allowed government organizations to access unprecedented amounts of data on smartphone users without any form of prior consent.
Now, with some assistance from another hacker nicknamed “Bunnie” (real name: Andrew Huang) Snowden has come up with designs for an add-on device that tracks signals sent to iPhone’s antennas (the inner ones).
Snowden along with his buddy hacker presented these designs at the MIT Media Lab event on Thursday.
Edward Snowden, a computer professional himself and has worked for companies like Dell and CIA in the past, is currently on a three-year asylum in Russia but reports have suggested that he is trying to look towards other countries that might offer him asylum.
One of the reasons why he could be asking other countries for asylum is the nature of his work, which involves stopping governments from spying on their citizens without reasonable justification. Russia isn’t exactly a nice place for people working in this business.
Edward Snowden’s latest device looks like a battery case for a smartphone device and has a tiny mono-color screen. From the looks of it, the device seems to be an external add-on rather than an internal one.
The device is being characterized as an introspection engine. And it has small probing wires that attach themselves to points on an iPhone’s circuit board. These points are known as test points.
The test points are easily accessible through the sim card slot on an iPhone. For those who need a primer on how iPhones send and receive data; go someplace else. For the purposes of Snowden’s device, all you really need to know is that a smartphone (an iPhone in this case) has two antennas that are responsible for producing two electrical signals.
These electrical signals are then used by the device’s radios (radios include technologies such as GPS and Bluetooth).
Basically, what Snowden’s device (or probe wires more precisely) does is that it reads the electrical signals produced by the radio equipment onboard of a modified iPhone. During the wire probe scans, the probe checks whether these electrical signals are transmitting information when they are (meant) to be turned off.
Edward Snowden’s device alerts the user (on whose iPhone the device is installed) with a text message when a suspicious activity is detected. The device can also produce an audible alarm should the user deem it necessary.
Not only that, the device is also advanced enough to shut off the smartphone device (the iPhone in this case) automatically if the user is unaware of the abnormal radio signals.
By the looks of it, the device seems to be geared towards journalists who travel in war-torn areas or even to hostile foreign countries (of course with their mobile phones) where, if they have the add-on device installed on their device, their location would be safeguarded from spying organizations (government or non-government funded ones).
The add-on device would have little effect on the normal workings of the device since it was revealed that users of the modified device (journalist in a hostile environment) would still be able to record audio and video even when their device’s (iPhones) radio signals are not active i.e. disabled.
For clarity’s sake, readers should know that there is no actual device in production at the moment. Edward Snowden’s presentation was about the design of such a device that would be able to perform aforementioned functions.
Edward Snowden and Andrew Huang are optimistic about the chances of building, at least, a prototype of the device within the next 12 months.
After that, their plans include offering these modified devices to journalists and other field-related professionals who need to guard their privacy due to the sensitive nature of their work.
Some have voiced concerns about buying a device from a person who has been called as a traitor in the United States of America.
But common sense dictates that, should citizens be really that concerned about potential spying activities from organizations like NSA?
Generally, people willingly give out their personal information (such as the places they go to hang out/eat/study/work/relax) on social websites like Facebook and Twitter on a regular basis without giving it a second thought.
Not only that, online advertising companies also track users who visit specific websites in order to get hold of their browsing habits and internet history in their quest to figure out what type of ads should be shown to that particular user.
These online advertising companies have little difficulty in obtaining email addresses of users they think would be more inclined to buy related products from them.
This scenario, by the way, doesn’t only apply to users who buy stuff online on a regular basis. A mere act of browsing websites can land your email address into the hands of these advertising agencies.
Some of these advertising companies call their actions by the name of “cookies” which they store on their servers to track users on multiple websites in order to get their personal information (in addition to their email addresses) and the list of products they might have looked at while surfing the internet.
So is the NSA really doing something different here?
The fact is, nowadays smartphones are constantly connected to the internet or to cell phone services a user might have subscribed to, and it is relatively easy for an organization like NSA to track your movements should they deem it justified.
The only way to make sure that you are not being tracked is by throwing your phone in the river. But most of us can’t afford that.
Snowden’s device (or more accurately device’s design) is basically an off switch for your device when an abnormal activity is detected. Hypothetically speaking, if you turned off your phone every time you got off a call or checked your email (or the thousands of other things you do on your mobile phone) then it would be as if you have installed this add-on on your device without any additional incurred cost.
Will Snowden’s potential device offer more? We’ll know for sure once its prototype comes out in about a year’s time.