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Snowden and Huang hope to help smartphones go dark

Taylor Armerding | Aug. 12, 2016
The famed whistleblower and a famous hacker collaborate on making the smartphone less risky for front-line journalists. Of course, if it works, it could obviously help bad guys too

“Privacy is dead,” has been a mantra, for different reasons, for generations. In the cybersecurity community, it has been conventional wisdom for at least a decade. But Edward Snowden and Andrew “bunnie” Huang apparently think they can revive it a bit, at least if you own an iPhone 6.

Their goal, they say in a white paper titled, “Against the Law – Countering Lawful Abuses of Digital Surveillance,” is to create an add-on hardware component that will protect “front-line journalists” in repressive regimes where governments have demonstrated the capability to track people through their smartphones even if the devices are set to “Airplane Mode.”

Indeed, on iPhones with iOS 8.2 and later, GPS remains active in Airplane Mode.

They did not address in their paper whether that kind of privacy could also be irresistibly attractive to terrorists and other criminals.

Snowden, the famous (or infamous) former NSA contractor who leaked a trove of classified documents proving, among other things, that the U.S. government was conducting surveillance on its own citizens, is much better known to the masses than Huang. But in hacking circles, it is Huang who has both a bigger name and more credibility to deliver such a device.

edward snowden bw

One good journalist, in the right place at the right time, can change history.
Edward Snowden, director, Freedom of the Press Foundation

So it was Snowden, now director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation and still a fugitive from U.S. justice living in Russia, who presented the political rationale for their proposal on livestream video last month to the "Forbidden Research" conference at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab – an “invitation only” event, although archived video is available.

And it was Huang, in person, who presented the technical elements of the prototype they hope to build within the next year.

It would not surprise anyone to hear that Snowden believes that just because something is legal doesn’t make it right or moral. He noted in his talk that everything from slavery to segregation, discrimination, torture, indefinite detention and extra-judicial killings have been conducted, “under frameworks that said they were lawful as long as you abide by the regulations.”

andrew bunnie huang

The question is, can you trust the gatekeeper – can you trust the UI (user interface)? 
Andrew “bunnie” Huang, hacker and author

He said the same is true of, “lawful abuse of digital surveillance,” which he said is now turning the tools of journalists’ trade against them. He said that since January 2005, “more than 1,070 journalists or media workers have been killed or gone missing.” The bulk of those deaths, he said, were not war-zone combat casualties but outright murder.


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