Have you ever wished for an app or device that lets you know when someone is spying on you or accessing your information when they are not supposed to? With the fast advancement in technology, where robots are now serving food in restaurants, drones are taking over surveillance and augmented reality is the current sensation and future that most of us want to experience, privacy is no longer an option. From the apps we grant permission to access personal data when downloading, to installing more apps in the hope to protect the same personal data, being spied on is becoming even easier than it was a few years ago.
Today, the smartphone you hold in your hand can be used to transmit signals and allow people to know your current location at any time, even when the phone is turned off. They can also go to an extent of accessing the microphone on your device and record conversations. So is the case with the webcams. Sometimes I get so paranoid (and watching Person of Interest only made this paranoia worse) that I have to put a sticker over my webcam. You know, just in case someone is watching. It makes me wonder how people with more sensitive roles in the society and the influencers of today have to go through. The constant thought that someone could record sensitive conversations from their smartphones and find their location at any given time is a fever I wouldn’t wish to catch.
Anyway, Edward Snowden, known for leaking classified data from the US government, is promising to provide iPhone users with a way out.
The Snowden iPhone Case
In collaboration with Andrew Huang, a famed hacker, the two announced a concept to develop and launch an iPhone case that will alert users whenever their devices are illegally transmitting data. Arrived at with the hope to protect journalists, activists, rights workers and other sensitive users from being spied on by government agencies and at the same time expose any spying efforts, the Snowden iPhone case is at the moment just a concept.
According to a White Paper explaining the concept, the Snowden iPhone case will include probe wires inside the iPhone connecting to the phone’s antennae through the SIM slot in order to monitor any transmission signal. From the outside, the device will appear as a normal battery case for the iPhone 6, only that it will give the device more battery power and contain the mainframe.
“In addition to providing more power to the iPhone 6, the case will also be home to the electronics core of the introspection engine, consisting of a small FPGA and an independent CPU running a code completely different from that of the iPhone 6.” The Snowden iPhone case will also include an independent screen display and audible alarms that will aid in notifying users on their phone’s status. This is to help journalists reporting in sensitive areas and in conflict regions to know when interested parties are tracking them.
Andrew Huang, the one buddying up with Snowden on the project explains that “this work aims to give journalists the tools to know when their smartphones are tracking and disclosing their location when the devices are supposed to be on airplane mode.”
How the Snowden iPhone case is relevant
For normal users who are just paranoid about data privacy because it is in the news and not so concerned about the implications being spied on could have on their lives, this may not make much sense. However, in cases where journalists are captured in conflict areas such as Somalia, Iraq and others, an iPhone case that alerts you whenever your location is being tracked may be a great asset to have. Not only does it alert users that they are being tracked, but it also promises a killer switch option that will forcibly disconnect power to the phone whenever there is an illegal transmission.
The iPhone case or introspection engine, as is the name given in the paper, will be a countermeasure that hopes to reduce cases of field journalists being tracked and even killed for reporting sensitive information that powerful institutions would rather kept silent. Huang and Snowden give an example of such cases in their paper, noting the case of an American Sunday Times reporter who is alleged to have been tracked and killed for covering stories on casualties in Syria. If the concept was actually to become reality, I do believe that a number of people could benefit from the anonymity. However, it is not without concern that I think about the negatives of such a device in the wrong hands.
In a world where various countermeasures exist to shield hackers and criminals from being traced, I wonder how many more will be able to have this even better luxury of hiding from authorities. And since the larger part of the project is being run on volunteer basis, the cost at which it will be available may not be much more than what the regular iPhone 6 retails at. In Kenya today cons have been interchanging SIM cards and phones just so they are not traced by authorities, with such a device in hand they would do more harm than good. And if the iPhone case delivers on exactly what it is promising in the coming year, it will become even harder for authorities to find and catch criminals as they will always know beforehand that their location has been tracked.
But even with the unfortunates, this idea could indeed help a great number of people who always have to avoid using their smartphones just in case someone is listening in on them. If and when the project goes well and the duo is able to convince Apple to incorporate the case in the iPhone devices and sell them as field work variants, then next year would be the year this iPhone case is available in the market. Whether it will be successful and if the device will ever see the light of day is something we all have to wait and see. But I do believe it is something anyone cautious about staying anonymous would want to see go live. Until then, we can only keep checking any updates from the duo and see the progress.