Smartphones can create a quandary for journalists, humanitarians, and activists in dangerous places where they are closely monitored: The devices are vital in terms of facilitating their work—and also exceptional tracking devices. It's not a plight to be taken lightly, as the Intercept makes clear with this example: A lawsuit filed by journalist Marie Colvin's family claims Syrian military intelligence used signal interception technology to trace her via her phone and bomb her makeshift media center, killing her. Whistleblower Edward Snowden, who says he hasn't been able to use a smartphone since leaking those NSA docs in 2013, intends to alter that paradigm. On Thursday he presented research via teleconference from an undisclosed location in Russia on what the Boston Globe has dubbed a "smartphone spy catcher."
As the Intercept explains, a phone's cellular, Bluetooth, wifi, and GPS radios can betray a user, and the easiest way to shut down those radios—switch to airplane mode—can be rendered useless, without the user's knowledge, by malware. Snowden's partner, hardware hacker Andrew "Bunnie" Huang, says it's best to always "assume the phone is compromised," reports Wired, and their goal is to create a device that reveals whether this is the case. Though they say a prototype (for the iPhone 6) is at least a year away, their so-called "introspection engine" will be a tiny open-source computer that looks like an external battery, affixes to a smartphone, and displays radio statuses on a screen. If a status is compromised, the pair suggest an alarm could sound; the device could potentially even then activate a "kill switch."