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Edward Snowden Develops App For Monitoring Physical Security

Matt Broersma is a long standing tech freelance, who has worked for Ziff-Davis, ZDnet and other leading publications

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The Android-based app monitors the physical environment around it and sends end-to-end encrypted updates via Signal mobile software

snowdenNSA whistleblower Edward Snowden has spearheaded the development of Haven, a smartphone application he described as a portable security system, which aims to help users with particularly sensitive security needs to monitor physical access to their private space and their devices.

Snowden himself has unusual security requirements, having lived in exile in Russia since 2013 after he publicly released secret documents on the NSA’s mass surveillance programmes.

Since then he said he hasn’t carried a mobile phone, but has increasingly worked on ways smartphones can be used to help protect individuals’ privacy.

Snowden has been president of the board of directors of the Freedom of the Press Foundation (FPF) since early 2016, and the group collaborated with the Guardian Project, a group of privacy and security-focused app developers, on the new tool.

Mobile sensor

Haven monitors the environment it’s placed in using the sensors on an Android device and logs changes such as movements, changes in the ambient light and sounds, sending logs, recordings and images to a second device over an encrypted connection using the Signal communications app.

It draws on the wide variety of sensors found in typical smartphones today – cameras, microphones, gyroscopes, accelerometers, light sensors and even monitors USB power.

A device running Haven could, for instance, be placed on a laptop while the user is out of their hotel room, ensuring the user was made aware of any attempts to tamper with it.

snowden-haven-log
Credit: The Guardian Project

“Imagine you are a journalist working in a hostile foreign country and you are worried about security services breaking into your hotel room and rifling through your belongings and computer while you are away,” the Freedom of the Press Foundation said in a statement.

The app, which is currently in beta, is aimed at people involved in dissident activities or defending human rights.

Snowden said the idea was originally suggested by Micah Lee of news outlet The Intercept, who is a board member of the FPF.

Testing

Lee brought up the concept early this year as a way of approaching the issue of physical security – that a computer’s security systems can all be bypassed once an attacker has physical access to it.

While Haven’s developers acknowledge the app can’t prevent people from tampering with people’s gadgets, they say it may put attackers on guard to know they’re being watched.

The FPF and the Guardian Project said they tested Haven in November with Columbian activist group Movilizatorio, which has been targeted by dozens of assassinations over the past year.

Movilizatorio founder Juliana Uribe Villegas said the app helped reassure testers that people weren’t breaking into their homes to plant surveillance equipment or lie in wait to harm them.

The software, largely developed by the Guardian Project, is open source, with the source code freely available on GitHub. Snowden said he hopes developers will use the code as a starting point for the creation of more apps.

Haven can be downloaded from Google Play as well as F-Droid, an open source alternative to Google’s app store, and developers said they’re seeking feedback from testers and developers.

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