When the government listens to most of our phone conversations, all it learns is how frustrated we are at the cable company or how much bread our spouse asked us to pick up at the grocery store. But for the few people who discuss deep, dark secrets over the phone, there's now an Edward Snowden-designed iPhone case that can detect eavesdropping signals sent to the phone's internal antennas.
It's called an "introspection engine," and it can sniff out the government-surveillance signals Snowden is famous for revealing.
"If you have a phone in your pocket that's turned on, a long-lived record of your movements has been created," Snowden explained during a speech at MIT today, presented remotely. "As a result of how the network functions, your devices are constantly shouting into the air, via radio signals, a unique identity that validates you to the phone company. This is not only saved by the phone company, but can be observed as it travels, by independent, even more dangerous third parties."
Developed in collaboration with fellow security expert Andrew Huang, Snowden's introspection device operates on a simple principle: if someone puts their phone in airplane mode, there should be no signals going in or out. If there are, the device alerts the user.
The introspection device, currently just a prototype and not available for sale, is user-inspectable and relies on open-source software, according to Huang's description. It performs its signal monitoring independently of the phone's processor, to avoid false positive readings, and is undetectable by the operating system. In addition to cellular signals, it can also detect unwanted Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connections.
The pair conducted their research on a shoestring budget, but Huang said they could seek the necessary funding to develop and maintain a supply chain if the prototype is successful in field trials.
Snowden sees the invention as primarily useful for journalists, who he said are most at risk of snooping using these signals when they are reporting on atrocities committed by governments during conflict zones, for instance.
"Typically in such circumstances , a journalist wouldn't file reports until after they had left the conflict area, to avoid reprisals," Snowden said, referring to Syrian president Bashar Al Assad's surveillance of foreign reporters. "But what happens when you can't wait? When there are things a government is sort of arguing aren't happening, but are happening?"