Edward Snowden may be a controversial character but it is undeniable that he is an expert when it comes to IT, cyber and mobile security. After becoming NSA whistleblower, he now resides in the outskirts of Moscow and keeps himself busy by designing cyber-security solutions. At the MIT Media Lab event, with the striking name 'Forbidden Research', Snowden, having collaborated with the fellow hacker Andrew 'Bunnie' Huang, presented a smartphone case concept that can block unauthorized data access. During the event in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Snowden discussed his product via video-link from Russia.
The Forbidden Research looked at the ethical aspects, laws and regulations related to technology, cyber and mobile security, and whether those improve or impede the health and sustainability of society. Due to AI, machine learning and data often raising social, moral and legal questions, it was important to look at them to see if there is a solution that can benefit the world and still deliver innovation.
Snowden and Huang expressed their concerns over increasing unauthorized access and attacks on mobile devices, and discussed their product and research naming it a 'hardware introspection engine'. The smartphone case will be able to alert the user if and when radio signals being transmitted. Snowden said that even if smartphone users put their device on airplane mode, switching off a phone's cellular and WiFi connections, GPS will still remain active. The new case-like product connects to a smartphone, monitors the electrical signals sent to its internal antennas, alerts and blocks unauthorized access attempts, supplies additional battery power and covers the rear camera. However, the device is in the project stage and there are no firm plans for mass production in the near future.
The concept may sound like a plot from a James Bond movie but concerns over gadget security are rising. In a recent Mark Zuckerberg post, savvy users spotted the entrepreneur's Macbook front camera and microphone are covered with tape which raised a wave of questions on social media. Graham Cluley, an award-winning online security expert then commented: 'I think Zuckerberg is sensible to take these precautions.'
However, it is not only high-profile people whose computers and mobile devices are under threat. When hackers scan for the open web and mobile cameras it can be for various motives from voyeurism to extortion. According to the report by the nonprofit Digital Citizens Alliance, the problem with unauthorised access is growing, with young women being seen as one of the main targets.
One of the main reasons Snowden and Huang came up with the smartphone case idea is the vulnerability of journalists and their materials. Snowden said: 'Unfortunately, journalists can be betrayed by their own tools.' Back in 2012, US reporter Marie Colvin was killed while covering the civil conflict in Syria, and a lawsuit alleges that she was assassinated with her satellite phone communications being tracked beforehand to find her location.
The Freedom of The Press stated that if the prototype proves successful, the organization may seek the necessary funding to develop and maintain it. This would enable journalists to be safer in the life-threatening situations. In his presentation at the MIT event, Snowden added: 'One good journalist in the right place at the right time can change history. One good journalist can move the needle in the context of an election. One well-placed journalist can influence the outcome of a war.'
Considering the sensitive nature of Snowden's project and the fact that it's funded voluntarily, mass production may not be possible. The problem of mobile and web security remains a concern, but events like the MIT Media Lab's Forbidden Research, can further encourage audiences to be more cautious with their mobile devices and help them to understand the vulnerability of data.