NSA whistleblower and privacy advocate Edward Snowden announced today that he is working on inventing a case-like device that will warn iPhone users if the government is tracking them.
Wired reported that Snowden and hardware hacker Andrew “Bunnie” Huang told an audience at the MIT Media Lab today that they are preparing to present designs for the device that accesses an iPhone’s inner workings in order to monitor electrical signals sent to the phone’s internal antennas. In this way, Wired writes, the gadget can offer users constant check-ins on whether their phones’ radios are transmitting signals. The inventors hope to allow smartphone users to be safeguarded against government-funded surveillance, particularly journalists who are trying to carry their phones into hostile foreign countries.
Speaking to the MIT audience via video stream, Wired writes, Snowden explained that “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,” he said.
Wired explains that Huang and Snowden plan to modify the iPhone 6 by installing an “introspection engine.” Although it would appear to be just an external battery, the introspection engine would actually “snake into the iPhone’s innards through its SIM-card slot to attach to test points on the phone’s circuit board.”
The wires would then read the signals from the phones antennas that are used by its radios, including its GPS, Bluetooth and WIFI. This would in turn allow the iPhone to warn the user if its radios are transmitting any signals when the phone is off.
In an interview with Wired, Snowden stressed that the new invention is not just to protect journalists in the field, but also to shed a public light on governments’ use of techniques to spy on people via their smartphones.
“You need to be able to increase the costs of getting caught,” Snowden said in a video call with Wired following the presentation. “All we have to do is get one or two or three big cases where we catch someone red-handed, and suddenly the targeting policies at these intelligence agencies will start to change.”
PC World also reported that the introspection engine could also activate a “kill switch” that would disconnect power to the phone, ensuring no signals are sent out.
But although the anti-spying device could benefit any concerned citizen, Snowden and Huang designed it with the 2012 death of American journalist Marie Colvin in Syria by an Assad regime airstrike.
The Intercept writes that despite the New York Times reporter’s efforts to sneak into the city of Homs via a “smuggler’s route,” “Syrian forces still managed to get to Colvin; under orders to ‘kill any journalist that set foot on Syrian soil,’ they bombed the makeshift media center she was working in, killing her and one other journalist and injuring two others.”
Snowden and Huang hope top use their invention to lessen the likelihood that journalists and human rights activists will be harmed by hostile governments.
For now, the introspection engine is merely an idea on a research paper, but Wired notes Snowden and Huang hope to develop a prototype next year. Eventually, the two privacy advocates would like to create a Chinese supply chain of modified iPhones to offer to reporters.