First let’s create the right amount of high-pitch melodrama required to set the right tone for a column like this. Your phone can be hacked into, microphone switched on and your conversation recorded without you having any idea that it’s being done. Think of all the conversations you have with people while your phone is lying right next to you. Think of all the phone conversations you have in a day. Think of someone who has recordings of all of that.
Your data can be sucked out, information accessed, your location discovered and all your photos and documents accessed – even when your phone is in airplane mode or turned off (usually done with spyware that activates the phone in stealth mode without your knowledge). Your phone can also be tricked into joining a fake rogue network that masquerades as your network service provider. Once your phone joins that network, it starts to upload everything on your phone lock, stock and barrel. Think of everything you have on your phone, all the passwords, all the data, all your emails, all your messages, all the private stuff. Think of someone sitting and reading through all of that every day.
Irrespective of whether you just gasped or simply dismissed the above as surveillance sensationalism, it’s an established fact that phone tapping by government agencies, marketeers, social media companies, app makers, private sniffers and hackers is at an all-time high. The phone is such a treasure trove of information and data, that it makes sense to concentrate on just that one device for it all. Thus, the case for an all-encrypted phone that tells you in real time what data or voice information is being sent out and to whom, starts to make a lot of sense.
This got a serious boost when it was announced that Edward Snowden was working with Andrew Bunnie Huang to create a fully encrypted, completely unhackable phone.
So who are these two guys?
Embarrassing question, because you really should know these two guys. Snowden is the poster boy of whistle blowers, a former Central Intelligence Agency employee who copied and leaked classified information from the National Security Agency that proved that multiple governments all over the world were spying on citizens on a global scale. He leaked all that information to some journalists and very famously asked the journalists to take out the battery of their phones and put them in a refrigerator. Huang is an infamous reverse engineering hacker of consumer products and his book Hacking the Xbox, got him into serious trouble with Microsoft and an army of other organisations. When these two get serious about an encrypted unhackable phone – we should all listen.
How would it work?
It’s not really a phone. Right now it’s a prototype for a case for iPhones. It will consist of probes and sensors that monitor all signal transmission. A display on the outside of the case along with audible alarms informs users of the phone’s status. If someone’s hacking in, listening in or even trying to – it can inform you and also cut them off. It can even make you and your phone go ‘dark’ (love that term), essentially making you disappear off the grid of any tracking mechanism. It’s called the introspection engine and is aimed at journalists working in conflict countries, dissidents in authoritarian countries and average citizens who want to prevent governments and others from snooping on their private lives. Thus, pretty much everyone!
What about Android?
If they will have one for iOS, they will obviously have one for Android too. But one such phone already exists. It’s called the Blackphone 2 and is claimed to be the world’s most secure and private phone. It has an operating system called Silent OS that encrypts everything including voice calls and data as well as controls which app gets to access what data. It costs about $799 but it’s a nice-looking phone with good specs too.
Isn’t this just overkill for a normal citizen who has nothing to hide?
Well, every time I have someone who comes up to me and says “but I have nothing to hide”, I always ask them to unlock their phones and hand it over to me for an hour. I am yet to have someone give it over. It’s not about things to hide, it’s about the privacy of our lives – something that must be respected at all levels.
In the future, encrypted and unhackable phones shouldn’t be something special but a standard default from all phone manufacturers. It’s going to be a tough task though, as this isn’t something any government will encourage or ask brands to do. Yet, the first seeds have been sown – hopefully it’ll bloom into a full-blown revolution.
In the meanwhile, I’m thinking of spending the next few hours deleting a few pictures I’ve sent and received on Snapchat. It’s not that I have anything to hide, but then you can never be too careful!
Rajiv Makhni is managing editor, Technology, NDTV, and the anchor of Gadget Guru, Cell Guru and Newsnet 3
From HT Brunch, July 31, 2016
Follow us on twitter.com/HTBrunch
Connect with us on facebook.com/hindustantimesbrunch