Snowden working on iPhone case that knows when you’re being spied on

22 Jul 2016

While attention returns to NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden following the launch of the latest trailer for his semi-biopic film, the real Snowden has been working on an anti-NSA iPhone case.

It has been two years since Edward Snowden became world famous after coming out as a whistleblower on US state surveillance activities conducted by the NSA which far exceeded what the general public, and many within the US government, thought was the reality.

Now, interest in Snowden has risen once again following the release of the latest trailer for Oliver Stone’s semi-biopic, Snowden, with Joseph Gordon-Levitt playing Snowden during the time before and after the revelations came to light.

More than just a case

The real Snowden, however, has been rather busy in recent months and, according to Wired, he and a Singapore-based hardware hacker are developing an iPhone case that monitors a phone’s radio signals for mysterious transmissions.

Developed with Andrew Huang from the MIT Media Lab, the case connects with an iPhone to monitor any electrical signals being sent to its radio antennae, letting you know that it is transmitting.

Based on the preliminary drawings of what the case will look like, a simple digital screen at the back of the phone will display if there is a signal transmitting, and both Snowden and Huang describing the case as an ‘introspection engine’.

Journalists under threat

While someone might think that their phone’s transmission capabilities have been disabled after entering ‘airplane mode’, the pair have said that this can easily be bypassed by those with the right skills.

Revealing the case during a presentation over a livestream, Snowden said such a device would be important for journalists covering sensitive topics who could find themselves vulnerable to snooping.

“One good journalist in the right place at the right time can change history,” Snowden said. “This makes them a target and, increasingly, tools of their trade are being used against them.”

Snowden case

An early drawing of the introspection engine case for an iPhone 6. Image via Andrew Huang and Edward Snowden

Connects directly with iPhone circuit board

Explaining in further detail how someone with the case would actually use it to monitor the phone’s hidden activities, Huang demonstrated that it would not be a simple slip-on case. Rather, the case will connect a series of wires through the iPhone’s SIM card slot to connect with the phone’s circuit board, while the SIM card itself will be stored within the new case.

If an untrustworthy signal is detected by the case, it could alert the user via an audible notification and there’s even the possibility of activating a kill switch.

While still at the design stage, Huang and Snowden released a paper detailing their plans which they hope will result in the first prototype model created over the course of the next year.

After this, they hope to create a supply chain of modified iPhones from China, specifically for journalists in the field, and will also make the designs fully open source for anyone to use.

Mass surveillance protest image via Sergey Kohl/Shutterstock

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic