Back in 2013, when Edward Snowden was at the peak of his controversial popularity, he met with a group of lawyers in a Hong Kong hotel room, and in a bizarre twist of events, asked them to put their cell phones in the refrigerator, to prevent any eavesdropping. Three years later, Snowden is back with a prototype that is better than freezing your phone.

On Thursday, Snowden and Andrew “Bunnie” Huang, a famous hacker, announced a case-like device that wires into your cell phone to monitor its electrical signals sent to its antennas. The two men claimed this would check whether your phone’s radios are transmitting, which will prevent hacking and eavesdropping from third parties. The device will be especially useful to reporters in hostile countries, as it will allow them to go undetected.

According to Snowden, “one good journalist in the right place at the right time can change history […] this makes them a target, and increasingly tools of their trade are being used against them”. Image Credit: Eteknix
According to Snowden, “one real journalist in the right place at the right time can change history […] this makes them a target, and increasingly tools of their trade are being used against them”. Image Credit: Eteknix

Huang agreed, stating that many are in danger because their phone is telling the governments where they are precisely located. So far, the two men prototype is only for the iPhone 6, and they describe it as an “introspection engine” that looks like an external battery case with a small screen. The device has tiny probe wires that would attach to test points on the phone’s circuit board, entering through the SIM card slot. Those wires would constantly read the phone antennas electrical signals, which are used by its radios, Bluetooth, GPS, Wi-Fi and cellular modem.

The device could detect and warn the owner if its radio sends a signal when they’re meant to be off. Huang stated that their approach is very simple “assume the phone is compromised […] let’s look at hardware-related signals that are tough to fake. We want to give a you-bet-your-life assurance that the phone has its radios off when it says it does”.

Being in airplane mode will not prevent hacking, and placing it in a Faraday bag designed to block all radio signals is not 100% efficient since they can still leak radio information. Regardless, the primary objective is to allow reporters to take photographs or notes on their phones, while at the same time being confident that the radio signals are off.

Snowden added that he also wants to expose governments’ use of surveillance techniques on citizens’ cell phones. He feels this is a personal issue since he hasn’t carried a cell phone in years, for fear that the radio signals could lead to him.

They still have to build a prototype, although they have tested their method to verify that they can spot all possible radio messages. At least now they have released a detailed paper explaining their idea. They eventually want to create a supply chain of modified iPhones to offer newsrooms and journalists.

The two men want to have their supply chain in China, where according to Huang, manufacturers have the skills to modified the smartphones.

“This is definitely something where, if you’re the New York Times and you want to have a pool of four or five of these iPhones and you have a few hundred extra dollars to spent on them, we could do that.” Claimed Huang. “The average [DIY enthusiast] in America would think this is pretty fucking crazy. The average guy who does iPhone modifications in China would see this and think it’s not a problem.”

Huang has stated he’s tried to develop the simplest protection possible, keeping at bay Snowden paranoia: “My solution is simple. But it helps a talented group of people.”

Both hackers’ background check

Edward Snowden was born June 21, 1983, and is a former CIA employee who became famous after leaking classified information concerning the National Security Agency without prior authorization. The leaked information revealed numerous global surveillance programs with the cooperation of telecommunication companies and European governments.

On June 14, 2013, United States federal prosecutors filed a criminal complaint against Snowden, charging him with two counts of violating the Espionage Act through unauthorized communication of national defense information and “willful communication of classified communications intelligence information to an unauthorized person.” Snowden fled to Hong Kong and then asked and received asylum in Russia.

Andrew “Bunnie” Huang was born in 1975, although the day and month are unknown. He is an American hacker, who obtained a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from MIT. He is mostly known as the author of the 2003 book Hacking the Xbox: An Introduction to Reverse Engineering. He has been residing in Singapore since 2012.

Sources: NY Times