Edward Snowden is perhaps the world’s most famous whistle blower and he has now launched an app to help others like him and the general public, protect themselves from unwanted surveillance.
The app, which will be known as Haven, is currently only available on Android phones. It claims to be able to use the physical sensors on the device to detect if there are intruders tampering with other electronic devices in a room.
How Haven can help you
It has been designed to be used on a second smartphone which likely targets for surveillance such as journalists and human rights activists can leave with other devices they want to protect. The app will use sensors on the phone, including its camera, microphone, gyroscope and accelerometer to monitor the room.
If the device is disturbed in any way, it will capture data including sound recordings and images to enable the owner to know who has tampered with their items.
If someone does attempt to interfere with your equipment, Haven will send an encrypted message to your primary smartphone. The victim will then be able to monitor what is happening in real time, via a Tor server located on the dark web. The Haven app will not transmit any information unless the owner of the device chooses to enable a built-in SMS function. This is intentional as many users may be worried that such information could be intercepted.
The app has been created by the Freedom of the Press Foundation, which Edward Snowden chairs the board of, and the Guardian Project.
Speaking to Wired Magazine, Snowden used a pretty graphic example to illustrate how Haven will work and in his own words, help users to “establish that the physical spaces around you can be trusted.”
“Imagine if you had a guard dog you could take with you to any hotel room and leave it in your room when you’re not there,” he explained. “And it’s actually smart, and it witnesses everything that happens and creates a record of it.”
Flipping mobile surveillance on its head
The initial focus of Haven is on journalists and human rights activists operating in hostile environments, but the developers are adamant that it could also have broader uses. They have suggested that it could serve a role in cases of police brutality, domestic abuse, and much more besides.
The concept of the app came from the notion that rather than serving as a threat to user privacy, a smartphone could be used as a security device. As the director of the Guardian Project, Nathan Freitas, has explained, the idea was to “take all the surveillance technologies in smartphones and flip them on their head, to keep watch on all the things you care about when you’re not there?”
Some people might worry that such an app could be a privacy risk. After all, it does, in theory, have the power to record visual and audio activity from your home and send it over the internet. It is also an open source app, which means anyone can look at the code and seek out any bugs or vulnerabilities it might contain.
But the developers are privacy experts and with Snowden fronting the project, it should come as no surprise that user privacy was always at the forefront of their minds.
Haven integrated the Signal encrypted messenger service, which ensures that all communications from the app are secure. It can also be configured to work with Orbot, an Android app which lets you connect your smartphone to the Tor network.
Concerns over Snowden and security
In their coverage of the new app, the BBC has highlighted concerns raised by some social media users about Snowden’s involvement in the Haven app. Some questioned how they can trust a security app developed by anyone who breached national security as he is perceived as having done.
But those people clearly have no real understanding of why Snowden chose to make public the information he did about the USA’s illegal mass surveillance programmes. That was about exposing illegal government actions in the greater interests of the American public rather than undermining national security.
Anyone who has followed Snowden’s work since will know that there is no greater advocate of online privacy and security than he and therefore no-one who can be more trusted to put out a reliable app of this nature.
The Haven app is not a perfect protection tool. In tests carried out by Wired, it proved to be 100% successful, at identifying an intruder. But of course, if that intruder is planning to steal equipment or data or even commit acts of physical violence, it cannot stop them doing so. But it can potentially act as a deterrent.
And at a time when there are so many legislative and technological efforts going into undermining our online privacy, it makes a refreshing change to see an innovate new way to protect it coming to fruition.