Bunnie Huang is having quite a day -- and it's a day the US government perhaps isn't too happy about. Huang has worked on a number of interesting projects over the years from hacking the Xbox
over a dozen years ago to highlighting innovation
happening without patents in China. This morning we wrote about him suing the US government
over Section 1201 of the DMCA. And now he's teamed up with Ed Snowden (you've heard of him) to design a device to warn you if your phone's radios are broadcasting without your consent
. Basically, they're noting that your standard software based controls (i.e., turning on "airplane mode") can be circumvented by, say, spies or hackers. But their tool is designed to actually determine if the radios are broadcasting for real:
The aim of that add-on, Huang and Snowden say, is to offer a constant check on whether your phone’s radios are transmitting. They say it’s an infinitely more trustworthy method of knowing your phone’s radios are off than “airplane mode,” which people have shown can be hacked and spoofed. Snowden and Huang are hoping to offer strong privacy guarantees to smartphone owners who need to shield their phones from government-funded adversaries with advanced hacking and surveillance capabilities—particularly reporters trying to carry their devices into hostile foreign countries without constantly revealing their locations.
They've published a paper describing the product
and it's a good read.
Front-line journalists risk their lives to report from conflict regions. Casting a spotlight on atrocities, their updates can alter the tides of war and outcomes of elections. As a result, front-line journalists are high-value targets, and their enemies will spare no expense to silence them. In the past decade, hundreds of journalists have been captured, tortured and killed. These journalists have been reporting in conflict zones, such as Iraq and Syria, or in regions of political instability, such as the Philippines, Mexico, and Somalia.
Unfortunately, journalists can be betrayed by their own tools. Their smartphones, an essential tool for communicating with sources and the outside world–as well as for taking photos and authoring articles–are also the perfect tracking device. Legal barriers barring the access to unwitting phone transmissions are failing because of the precedent set by the US’s “third-party doctrine,” which holds that metadata on such signals enjoys no legal protection. As a result, governments and powerful political institutions are gaining access to comprehensive records of phone emissions unwittingly broadcast by device owners. This leaves journalists, activists, and rights workers in a position of vulnerability. Reporter Marie Colvin’s 2012 death is a tragic reminder of how real this vulnerability can be. A lawsuit against the Syrian government filed in 2016 alleges she was deliberately targeted and killed by Syrian government artillery fire. The lawsuit describes how her location was discovered in part through the use of intercept devices that monitored satellite-dish and cellphone communications.
Of course, at this point, all that exists is the paper explaining how this will work. They haven't yet built the actual system. But given Huang's history of hardware hacking and his relationships in Shenzhen, it seems likely that he could get it made pretty quickly if there was demand.
Huang, who lives in Singapore but travels monthly to meet with hardware manufacturers in Shenzhen, says that the skills to create and install their hardware add-on are commonplace in mainland China’s thriving iPhone repair and modification markets. “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.” says 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.”
Again, who knows if people will actually end up using this, but it's still good to see solutions like this being explored and tested.