Former National Security Agency contractor-turned-whistleblower Edward Snowden is working with an MIT Media Lab researcher to build a device to protect journalists’ smartphones from government spies.
“Increasingly the tools of their trade are being used against them,” said Snowden during a Thursday conference at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But the device that he’s designing with Media Lab research affiliate Andrew “Bunnie” Huang, will detect whether a phone is sending or receiving unauthorized radio signals.
Snowden, who addressed the symposium via teleconference, has lived in hiding somewhere in Russia since 2013. He fled the United States after revealing a variety of secret surveillance programs that collected information on millions of Americans.
The simplest way to avoid smartphone snooping is to leave the device at home, or switch it off. But many journalists use their phones to shoot video and still images, record interviews with sources or take notes. So to avoid broadcasting their locations, they can set the phone to “airplane mode,” which is supposed to switch off its cellular, Bluetooth, and Wi-Fi radios.
But Snowden said it’s possible that spy agencies could infect phones with malware that would leave the radios in operation even when a phone appeared to be in airplane mode. In addition, phone user can deliberately or accidentally switch on Wi-Fi or Bluetooth even in airplane mode.
The proposed device would eliminate these risks. It would be a plastic sleeve designed to slide over an Apple iPhone 6. The electronics in the device would monitor the phone’s antennas to detect any incoming or outgoing signals from the cellular, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, GPS, or NFC radio chips. It would trigger an alarm to warn the user of possible snooping. Because the device is a separate piece of hardware, it would be secure against any effort to hack the phone’s operating system.
“The technical goal here is to make sure that the radios are really off,” said Huang. “Think of the thing we’re doing as like a designated driver for the phone.”
Snowden said that the creation of such a device would make spying less likely because it would increase the risk that an agency would be caught at it. “The NSA, for example, is very nervous about being caught red-handed,” he said. “They don’t want to risk the political impact of being seen targeting groups, like journalists, like American lawyers.... If we can create a track record of unlawful or unethical activity, we can begin creating a framework to overturn a culture of impunity.”
Snowden’s firsthand experience as a whistleblower may have inspired the project. He worked closely with several news organizations, including the Washington Post and the UK’s Guardian newspaper, to publicize his allegations. One Guardian reporter working on the Snowden story was detained at London’s Heathrow Airport in 2013, and his phone, laptop, and camera were confiscated.
For now, Snowden’s proposed spy detector exists only on paper. Huang couldn’t say when it would become available, or how much it would cost.