Edward Snowden, the famed whistleblower who blew the lid on the NSA’s heavy-handed surveillance, has designed a new iPhone case called the ‘introspection engine.’ The privacy activist is still living in exile in Russia for stealing massive amounts of documentation from the US government while working for them in Hawaii. It is from Russia with love that the revered whistleblower is working in cohorts with hardware hacker Andrew ‘Bunnie’ Huang, to create an iPhone case that will allow people to monitor if their phone is being spied on.
When Snowden met with reporters Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald in his hotel room in Hong Kong back in 2013, he famously asked them to pop their phones in the fridge. The reason for the cold treatment of the journalists’ devices? To stop their phones from receiving radio signals that could be used to remotely activate their cameras or microphones. A moment that was captured perfectly by Poitras in her documentary about the events ‘Citizenfour’.
Now, Snowden and the notorious hardware hacker Bunnie Huang are working together to create an iPhone case that will wire directly into the smartphone. To monitor whether the phone is being interfered with by outside radio signals, and allowing the user to know what electrical signals are coming and going from the phone. Cool!
The cybersec-conscious pair have published a white paper on the Internet that describes in detail how the iPhone case will work. In it, Huang and Snowden explain just why they feel such a device is necessary in the modern world,
‘Front-line journalists are high-value targets, and their enemies will spare no expense to silence them. Unfortunately, journalists can be betrayed by their own tools. Their smartphones are also the perfect tracking device.
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. This leaves journalists, activists, and rights workers in a position of vulnerability.’
‘In dangerous environments like war-torn Syria, smartphones become indispensable tools for journalists, human rights workers, and activists. But at the same time, they become especially potent tracking devices that can put users in mortal danger by leaking their location.’
Bunnie Huang has himself reiterated those beliefs about the dangers that journalists face,
‘They’re [journalists] overseas, in Syria or Iraq, and those [governments] have exploits that cause their phones to do things they don’t expect them to do. You can think your phone’s radios are off, and not telling your location to anyone, but actually still be at risk.’
The new iPhone case’s design, which is based around an iPhone 6 for the white paper is intended for use with all phones and not just iPhones. The iPhone 6, simply being used for the conceptual design purpose of the project.
The white paper goes on to explain that the ‘introspection engine’ (as they are calling it) will monitor for all signals (cellular, WiFi, Bluetooth, and other radio connections). Displaying notifications about when each of those features are sending and receiving data. Furthermore, sounding an alarm when something untoward appears to be taking place within the smartphone device.
Other features include a covering for the rear facing camera to stop it from recording unbeknownst to the phone’s owner. Plus, a kill switch to shut down power to the phone if the security case decides some communication that the owner did not agree to is occurring.
It is hoped that the new smartphone case will allow those people who risk their lives to report valuable information to the world, to have better control over monitoring what their phone is doing. Perhaps allowing them to avoid life-threatening situations – by avoiding detection – while reporting in dangerous locations.
‘Introspection Engine’ iPhone case: Only a concept for now
The white paper demonstrates a deep and thoughtful approach to attempting to secure the iPhone’s communication features. No detail has been left untouched, and reveals a level of expertise that Snowden admits he is somewhat indebted to Huang for,
‘When I worked at the NSA, I worked with some incredibly talented people, but I’ve never worked with anybody who had such an incredible outpouring of expertise than I have with Bunnie.’
One example of the levels of thoughtfulness that have gone into the introspection engine’s design can be found in a section of the whitepaper called NFC Introspection/Defeat. In the document, the duo describe how they plan to deal with the iPhone’s Apple Pay NFC feature,
‘Fortunately, the NFC’s antenna is connected to the main logic board via a single screw. By removing this screw and separating the antenna from the main logic board, we hope to substantially and selectively reduce the sensitivity of the NFC radio. Further testing is required to determine if this is sufficient to guard against attacks by adversaries using high-power amplifiers to query the Apple Pay NFC feature. If found inadequate, further countermeasures, including but not limited to permanently removing the Apple Pay NFC RF front end chip from the mainboard, are options to prevent exploitation of the radio without leaving a clear signature that can be detected by an adversary.’
For now, the project is very much an academic one with little hope of the device hitting the shelves anytime soon. One thing is for sure, though, with Snowden and Huang working together you can be sure the project is likely to come to fruition with much acclaim. Should it ever leave the white paper stage.