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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

One of the more recent was Marie Colvin, a reporter for the Sunday Times in Britain, who was killed in Syria in 2012 by government artillery fire on the apartment building being used as a makeshift media center in the city of Homs.

She had reported just hours earlier that government claims that they were not shelling civilian targets were false. Her family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the Syrian government last month.

According to Snowden, “Her family has evidence that the radio frequency (RF) communications she used to file her reports were intercepted by the Syrian army. They used direction-finding capabilities to track and locate this illegal, unlawful media center” – unlawful because of a government news blackout.

dan cornell

Any useful technology will have applications that are both ‘good’ and ‘evil.’ 
Dan Cornell, CTO and principal at the Denim Group

Another much more recent example of the risk is Nour Al-Ameer, a former vice president of the Syrian National Council and now a refugee activist, who received what looked like a legitimate email with a PowerPoint attachment purporting to contain details of “Assad Crimes.”

She didn’t open it, and turned it over to Citizen Lab, which determined it contained spyware with a remote access Trojan called “Droidjack” that would allow a remote attacker to control her mobile device – to turn on the microphone and camera, remove files, read encrypted messages, and send spoofed instant messages and emails. Obviously, if her phone had been compromised, she and her family would have been in mortal danger.

So the goal of the hardware Snowden and Huang hope to develop, he said, would let the smartphone’s owner know if the device, “starts breaking the rules” and broadcasting any kind of locational information through RF.

As Huang put it, “the question is, can you trust the gatekeeper – can you trust the UI (user interface)?”

This will not be a simple add on, however. It is complicated enough that the two decided to build it for just a single phone – the iPhone 6 – since that model is, “what we understand to be the current preferences and tastes of reporters,” although Huang said in his presentation that once the module is a reality, “it should be extendable to other makes and models of phones.

As he explained and the paper illustrates, the installation of what they are calling an “introspection engine” will require a skilled technician to open the device and go through the SIM card port to attach sensors at multiple points, to monitor anything that might emit RFs – the cellular modem, WiFi, Bluetooth and GPS. Their plan is to disable entirely near-field communication (NFC), which is used for Apple Pay, since they don’t think front-line journalists will be doing that kind of shopping.


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