Whistleblower Edward Snowden is back in the headlines this week thanks to a new high-tech phone case he designed with famed hacker and free-speech activist Andrew “bunnie” Huang. The phone case will notify users whenever their phone is transmitting data, and features a “kill-switch” than can disable the phone’s power instantly. The case also obstruct phone cameras to prevent unwanted monitoring and its own display screen that lets users monitor all data traffic.
The case has been dubbed an “introspection engine” by its designers, and looks inconspicuously like a normal phone case, aside from the added LCD screen. The any-spying case is still in the research and development phase, but Huang and Snowden have published an open-source paper on the case’s design and the theories behind it, which will likely spawn many iterations of the same concept.
According to Snowden and Huang’s publication, the phone case comes in response to some rather Orwellian surveillance policies put in place in recent years that give government agencies full access to mobile phone data:
Because of the precedent set by the US’s “third-party doctrine,” which holds that metadata on such signals enjoys no meaningful legal protection, governments and powerful political institutions are gaining access to comprehensive records of phone emissions unwittingly broadcast by device owners.
Huang told a Wired interviewer that the phone is designed with journalists in mind, who have been increasingly treated with hostility by governments everywhere. As the digital age has eroded governments’ abilities to control the flow of information, some organizations within the U.S. government went so far as to even classify American war journalists as ‘enemy combatants.’
Snowden and Huang are looking to source the manufacturing of the cases to the electronics-modding grey markets of Shenzhen, China. In the Wired interview, Huang claims the phone-modding scene in China is far beyond the capabilities of modding communities in the West, perhaps due to the lengths to which Chinese citizens must go in order to evade China’s Great Firewall:
The average [DIY enthusiast] in America would think this is pretty [#%&@#] crazy. The average guy who does iPhone modifications in China would see this and think it’s not a problem.
Some might see this case as the phone equivalent of a tin foil hat, while others will see it as a necessary step citizens must take to protect themselves against increasingly intrusive government surveillance agencies worldwide. But let’s face it: everyone’s digital closet has at least one skeleton in it. Protective measures such as this phone case might soon be the new norm if certain totalitarian interests get their way.