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The co-designers, who have never met in person, presented their device via video link at the MIT Media Lab in Cambridge, Massachusetts, claiming it would help combat governments’ “massive arsenals” of surveillance.
Snowden, who famously revealed mass surveillance programmes by the National Security Agency (NSA), where he worked as a contractor, noted that smartphones can currently be tracked down and spied on “even when in flight mode”.
He said the new case, dubbed the “introspection engine”, connects to a phone’s different radio transmitters, letting its owner know when a cellular, Wi-Fi or Bluetooth connection is being used to share or receive data.
If the phone is being “spied on”, the device makes an alarm sound and can be programmed to disconnect the power supply, acting as a sort of “kill switch”.
A tool for journalists
The “introspection engine” could be of particular use to activists and journalists who are routinely monitored by surveillance agencies, said Snowden, who has been living in exile in Russia since 2013.
“One good journalist in the right place at the right time can change history,” he said. “This makes them a target, and increasingly the tools of their trade [are] being used against them.”
The co-designers pointed to the case of US journalist Marie Colvin, who was killed by a Syrian bombardment in the city of Homs in 2012. Lawyers for Colvin’s family have argued that the Syrian regime was able to locate the reporter using signals emitted by her mobile phone.
A prototype of the “introspection engine” is expected by next year, and could be marketed soon after if sufficient funds are collected. Snowden and Huang said they hoped to design a case that is compatible with all smartphone brands.