NSA hacktivist and whistleblower Edward Snowden has begun a project with hardware hacker Andrew Huang to design a phone case that alerts users if their device is being unknowingly used by outside threats to pinpoint your location.
The problem has stemmed from the use of mobile phones by reporters and activists in war ridden countries and the possible links to the hacking and locating of phones in the effort to subdue inside stories leaving the borders and making their way into worldwide news corporations.
All though very convenient and in some situations essential for reporters to be able to film, record, communicate and broadcast stories. The mobile phone makes for a perfect tracking device. The cellular signals can be used by governments and other organisations to determine the locations of front-line journalists, political activists and human right workers.
Marie Colvin was a war correspondent reporting on the ongoing war and instability within the middle east and in particular Syria. In 2012, Marie was killed by an artillery strike fired by Syrian forces. Her family believed that she was tracked via her mobile and was purposely murdered in order to cover up the reporting she had been doing on the civilian casualties at the time.
Graham Cluley believes that although some at-risk individuals may know that risks exist, they may have been misled about the best way to protect themselves. For instance, many people assume that enabling airplane mode on their iPhone will hide their location. But since iOS 8.2, GPS remains active regardless of airplane mode being enabled.
Additionally Edward and Andrew have also stated in their report that:
“Airplane mode is a ‘soft switch’ – the graphics on the screen have no essential correlation with the hardware state. Malware packages, peddled by hackers at a price accessible by private individuals, can activate radios without any indication from the user interface; trusting a phone that has been hacked to go into airplane mode is like trusting a drunk person to judge if they are sober enough to drive.”
Due to this recent security flaw, Edward have designed what is called an ‘Introspection Engine’; a mobile phone battery case that monitors the smartphones cellular, GPS, WI-Fi and Bluetooth use. The Introspection Engine will alert a user if one of the 4 possible connections are being used when they are supposed to be switched off. This gives people the ability to know when their smart phones are tracking or disclosing their locations when the devices are supposed to be in airplane mode. The greatest feature is that the Introspection Engine is completely external to the phone itself. This makes it impossible to compromise with malware from a remote location. One must physically possess the attachment in order for it to be compromised.
Although, it is only early days, both Edward Snowden and Andrew Huang have said that they wish to prototype and verify the introspections engines abilities. As the project is run largely through volunteer efforts on a shoestring budget, it will proceed at a pace reflecting the practical limitations of donated time. If the prototype proves successful, the FPF may move to seek the necessary funding to develop and maintain a supply chain.
This would enable the FPF to deploy modified iPhone 6 devices for field service among journalists in high-risk situations. Who knows, with hundreds of thousands of mobile devices hacked each and every day; maybe this kind of technology will become available to the general population in the effort to protect personal data from outside threats.
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