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Edward Snowden Designs an iPhone Case to Detect Government Spying

Posted on August 3, 2016

Three years ago, Edward Snowden turned the United States upside down by leaking information about NSA spying programs to the press. The leaks gave American citizens an unprecedented view of the tactics that the government employs to track and monitor their private lives. In the wake of the leaks, Snowden was labeled as a traitor to the United States.

Currently, Edward Snowden is living in exile in Russia. However, that fact hasn’t kept him from being a near-consistent presence in the headlines. This fall, he’ll be the subject of a new Hollywood film from famed director Oliver Stone, and recently, he made waves by announcing a design concept for his very own iPhone case.

According to Cult of Mac, Snowden recently presented the proposed phone case at the MIT MediaLab. Snowden and his partner on the project, hacker Andrew “Bunnie” Huang, want the phone case to tell people when an outside source might be tracking their movements or otherwise spying on them. The design is aimed specifically at “front-line journalists,” individuals who Snowden and Huang describe as “high-value targets” who can “be betrayed by their own tools.”

“Because of the precedent set by the US’s ‘third-party doctrine,’ which holds that metadata on such signals enjoys no meaningful legal protection, governments and powerful political institutions are gaining access to comprehensive records of phone emissions unwittingly broadcast by device owners,” Snowden and Huang wrote in an abstract about their new device. “This leaves journalists, activists, and rights workers in a position of vulnerability. This work aims to give journalists the tools to know when their smartphones are tracking or disclosing their location when the devices are supposed to be in airplane mode.”

The iPhone case that Snowden and Huang have designed would connect to the phone’s SIM slot. By connecting to the phone, the phone case would be able to monitor incoming signals that might be “controlling the phone’s radio hardware.” The idea is that governments and other external threats are using signals to switch on a phone’s wireless transmitters and active the device as a tracker. Even if the phone is on airplane mode, unwelcome signals can manipulate radio signals to give away the user’s location. The tool that Snowden and Huang have devised would track these signals and alert the user or shut off the phone if and when someone tried to manipulate the phone’s radio transmitters.

Right now, Snowden and Huang only have a theoretical product. However, Snowden says that the phone case should be ready for the prototype stage sooner rather than later. What the price and availability of the device would be, is hard to say. Since Snowden and Huang have devised it for journalists, the case might not be exactly mainstream in terms of price point. Still, the concept of an iPhone accessory that fights back against government spending is definitely intriguing.

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