Edward Snowden and "bunnie" Huang are developing a smartphone case that can detect malicious software on your smartphone.

Malware Attacks on Mobile Phones

Malware attacks on phones have increased significantly over the last few years. These attacks install software that leaves the radio on your phone even if you switch it to airplane mode.

There have been many cases of the radio on a cell phone sending information to an outside source. In particular, journalists and their information have become targets, as demonstrated by the killing of Sunday Times war correspondent Marie Colvin in 2012 after Syrian forces reportedly tracked her location by tracing her satellite phone.

As security becomes a larger issue in the public consciousness, accessible ways to maintain security integrity on phones are becoming more and more important.

In response, Edward Snowden and Andrew “bunnie” Huang have developed a mobile phone case that can detect whether malware is active on your phone. Huang is a noted hacker and engineer perhaps best known for the guide, Hacking the Xbox. Snowden is the now infamous former CIA employee who leaked details about the US government's surveillance policies in 2013. Combined, they are a force to be reckoned with when it comes to knowledge about surveillance, cyber security, and protecting personal information.

Their new device has been called an “introspection engine” and is intended for use with the iPhone. They've written a paper that details what their new smartphone case does to combat this important problem. 

 

Design and Details

Image courtesy of Andrew Huang and Edward Snowden.
 

The external device can be clipped onto a cellphone to probe it using an oscilloscope. This will indicate whether any software is keeping the radio on even when it is supposed to be off. The device doesn’t get rid of the software it detects as of right now but it does at least alert the cell phone user to a potential problem.

The design of the device is simple to use and easy to interpret so that the user does not need specialized knowledge to decipher the results.

Huang and Snowden had several goals in mind when designing the smartphone device:

  • Open source— Transparent and open to the developer community
  • User-inspectable— People can verify that the device is doing what it says it will do
  • Simple— Anyone can use it without a degree in computer science
  • Accurate— Specifically when it comes to minimizing the number of false positives
  • Non-invasive— Normal use of the phone is not impeded by the device

For the iPhone, there are four different radio interfaces that could potentially be used for malicious purposes: the cellular modem, Wi-Fi, GPS, and NFC. The focus for this particular detection case is just radio frequency interfaces rather than including other interfaces such as the camera or microphone.

The next step in developing the case was to look at different test points that are already built into a phone to monitor radio signals from the phone. Different test points were evaluated and their signals monitored to determine and map the radio signal based on whether the phone is in airplane mode or not. Specifically, the NFC interface was completely disabled—this simplified the introspection and was done because most journalists probably would not be using NFC a lot, the primary use of which is Apple Pay.

 

Conceptual depiction of the case. Image courtesy of Andrew Huang and Edward Snowden.

 

This new case is a big step towards detecting and preventing malware attacks on smartphones. The case will feature a screen to keep the user apprised of the status of the radios on their phone such as whether there is a signal being transmitted or how long it has been since the last transmission.

Although the case is still in the conceptual stage and there is a lot of work to be done before a full prototype is ready, the research and measurements that have already been done are very promising.

 

Comments

2 Comments


  • billbucket 2016-08-26

    They used an oscilloscope to confirm the test points inside the phone, but that’s not the intended use case. Also, phones do not transmit anything on any GPS band, they receive only. You’ve also got a typo in your second sentence.

  • tmig 2016-08-26

    In your article you listed four radio interfaces, but I think you meant five - you didn’t include Bluetooth. GPS, since it is receive only, is not a danger in itself, but when combined with an interface that transmits surreptitiously (as in this scenario) the GPS coordinates, becomes possibly the most dangerous, giving away the most valuable info, the persons location.