NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden has helped to design an iPhone 6 case that detects if a handset is transmitting data when it’s in airplane mode.

The project was announced yesterday by design collaborator and American hacker Andrew “Bunnie” Huang, the founder of Bunnie Studios and best known for being the first person to hack the Xbox and for legally challenging the DCMA act.

Snowden iPhone case

Mockup of Edward Snowden and Andrew Huang’s iPhone case (Image: Huang & Snowden)

The concept for the case is described in a paper titled Against the Law: Countering Lawful Abuses of Digital Surveillance, which explains that the design is to protect journalists, activists, and rights workers from being tracked by governments.

The case features probe wires that access the phone’s antennae through the SIM slot to monitor signal transmission, while audible alarms and a display on the outside of the case inform users of their phone’s status.

Snowden and Huang write that using Airplane mode is “no defense” against radio transmission, which makes such a case necessary:

For example, on iPhones since iOS 8.2, GPS is active in airplane mode. Furthermore, airplane mode is a “soft switch” – the graphics on the screen have no essential correlation with the hardware state. Malware packages, peddled by hackers at a price accessible by private individuals, can activate radios without any indication from the user interface; trusting a phone that has been hacked to go into airplane mode is like trusting a drunk person to judge if they are sober enough to drive.


Concept design for the iPhone case (Image: Huang & Snowden)

The paper cites the case of American reporter Marie Colvin, who is reputed to have been tracked by the Assad regime in Syria and killed for covering stories about civilian casualties.

According to a lawsuit filed by Colvin’s family this year, the Sunday Times journalist’s location was discovered in part through the use of intercept devices that monitored satellite-dish and cellphone communications.

You can find out more about the project by reading the white paper at Pubpub.

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