Trevor Timm, director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, on Edward Snowden’s phone for journalists

August 1, 2016
Category: Tech & Tools

Former National Security Agency contractor and whistleblower Edward Snowden recently announced plans to develop a modified phone for journalists that can protect them from government surveillance.

Snowden has worked with Andrew Huang, a hacker and electrical engineer from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, on the design. Their aim is to notify reporters if their phones are being tracked, something that can be done even while the device is in airplane mode.

The project, which has not yet produced a finished prototype, has been funded by the Freedom of the Press Foundation, a San Francisco-based nonprofit of which Snowden is a board member. We talked to Trevor Timm, co-founder and executive director of the foundation, about the project’s future and what it could mean for journalists.

What do you make of Snowden’s and Huang’s proposed device? What does it mean for reporters?

We’ve seen over the past decade that journalists are in more and more danger around the world because of increasing surveillance capabilities of all sorts of governments. When we carry around cellphones in our pockets, they are emitting all sorts of signals that could give away a reporter’s location, who they’re talking to, when they’re talking to them and what they are saying, or what they are sending back to their editors.

At the same time, cellphones and computers are increasingly vital for the work of journalists, and it’s not as simple as saying, ‘Oh don’t carry a cellphone or computer’ to report on things, even in dangerous places. That becomes impossible. So the research that Snowden and Huang are doing right now is an attempt to look at all the surveillance problems and see if we can come up with solutions or mitigations.

Are there any challenges in launching such a product?

Right now, there is no product. This is just an [unfinished] prototype that Snowden and Huang have been working on. It’s a research project and certainly, the research is nowhere near completion. They are finding ways to refine the prototype that they’ve come up with and are sourcing feedback from other security researchers to see how they can make it better. 

Essentially what they are doing is trying to give the user much more control over the hardware that is in his pocket or in his hands 24 hours a day, so that he can understand exactly what is being emitted from that cellphone, and how he can control it and potentially stop those various signals from transmitted.

Were you in contact with Snowden for this project early on?

Yes. We have been funding their research on this topic. If this prototype ever comes to fruition, then the Freedom Of The Press Foundation could potentially fund the manufacture of a limited number of devices and start handing them out to journalists on the field. But I would caution that it’s still a long way from that becoming a reality.

There certainly has to more research done, more testing to be done. We want to make sure that anything that goes in the hands of reporters is as audited and as safe as it can possibly get. The duo has been working on it for at least a few months now.

If this tool comes to fruition, how do you make sure it is only used by journalists?

It’s something that’s completely open-source, and people would potentially want to manufacture it themselves. I think that while the use case of this tool is definitely journalists, if down the road it becomes a thing that is helpful, other people might want to protect their privacy and security while entering potentially hostile places.

You can think of U.S. businessmen and women who travel overseas to countries like Russia and China where there is adversarial private spying going on. In those cases, something like this might be useful to them. We’re not full manufacturers, but what we hope to do at the Freedom Of The Press Foundation is to create some working prototypes so that journalists can give us feedback as to how they work in their day-to-day job using these devices.

Do you think such a device will enhance the quality of reporting?

I don’t know if I can speak to the quality of reporting, but the idea is that hopefully, a tool like this would protect or mitigate surveillance risks when journalists are doing their jobs. Given that so many reporters have been arrested or killed around the world because of so many governments are increasing surveillance capabilities, that’s ultimately the goal.

The questions and answers have been edited for clarity.