On July 21st at the MIT Forbidden Research presentation Edward Snowden and Andrew “Bunnie” Huang presented their iPhone case that allows you to detect if your phone is transmitting a signal at unexpected times. In research presented by Snowden and Huang, there can be special cases when putting your phone in ‘airplane mode’ does not actually prevent the phone from sending out a radio signal, including your GPS location.
The issue lies within the operating system and the button to enable airplane mode is truly only a soft button and does not interface with the hardware directly. Due to this, it is trivial for any malware installed on the phone to falsely report the phone in airplane mode but in actuality it is still transmitting a signal.
Dubbed ‘Introspection”, their hardware would connect directly into the phone’s internal hardware and act as a ‘canary’ that will alert you when your phone is transmitting a signal.
Via Snowden at the MIT Media Lab, “One good journalist in the right place at the right time can change history” and “This makes them a target, and increasingly tools of their trade are being used against them.” and in some cases these journalists have payed the ultimate price.
In an interview with WIRED Huang said “You can think your phone’s radios are off, and not telling your location to anyone, but actually still be at risk.” and “Our approach is: state-level adversaries are powerful, assume the phone is compromised,” as the motivation for developing the case. Huang goes on to also say that this design is simple and while the purpose might seem mundane it is helping an important group of people.
Part 1 of the MIT Forbidden Research talk