How Does Edward Snowden’s New Surveillance App Work?

Edward Snowden, who has earned an (in)famous reputation as an American patriot/traitor, has collaborated with The Guardian Project and Freedom Of The Press to create an app that is intended to help guard against your computer from being hijacked. The Guardian Project develops apps that are aimed at increasing your personal security, anonymity and privacy in light of the many threats to the same that go along with the advances in technology. Freedom Of The Press is an advocacy group committed to supporting the efforts of whistleblowers and journalists who reveal corporate and governmental shenanigans all around the world. Snowden is president of the journalistic effort.

The app’s name is Haven, and it is designed to use the features of an Android-based phone to act like a mini surveillance system. The good news is that it will work on older Android smartphones as well, so you don’t need to upgrade or buy a new phone to take advantage of the apps features. One of its main strengths and capabilities is to detect when your physical property has been tampered with. Cyberattacks get much of the headlines, but these occur over networks, something most of us have no control over. Haven gives you the opportunity to control the things you can control.

Three of an Android’s major features – its camera, it audio recorder, and its ability to detect motion – can be use in synch to detect and record anyone tampering with the contents of your room. Using Haven, you can record a snapshot, record any noise of voices that occur when a device is tampered with, or begin executing both of these operations when the motion sensor is activated. You will be notified of the event through an SMS text or Tor message.

The developers admit that it is not a perfect solution. One drawback is the fact that the phone will always have to be connected to the Internet to receive the message notifications, which for some people can be expensive. An obvious drawback is the power source – your smartphone would always have to be plugged in to continually be able to keep an eye on things. Finally, there is the issue of false positives, which are always possible.

With Haven in use your smartphone would have to be hidden out of sight because stealing the surveillance system does seem to defeat its purpose. It would have to be near an electrical outlet for continual charging, which may mean that the items you want to surveille may be out of range or out of view. Despite these limitations, tests show that when it works, it works well. It is promoted for use in hotel rooms and office environments.

There doesn’t seem to be much new here as there are a number of apps that have similar functions. One of the selling points is that it has Snowden’s name associated with it (which can also be a bad thing). All of the data that Haven records and sends is encrypted to create another level of privacy. The fact that it works on older model Android smartphones gives users an opportunity to put that old Droid phone sitting around for the last couple of years to a good use. If someone steals it, at least you really aren’t losing anything. Being texted with an alert can be either good or bad, depending if you get a false positive at work and decide to high tail it back to your room.

Despite Haven being able to competently do what it is designed to do, the question is how useful is the app to most people. Snowden no longer carries a smartphone at all since leaving the United States. Living in Russia is another reason not to carry one, so that is not so hard to understand. Portraying Snowden as someone who is a little more paranoid than the average person is fair, but also necessary. Most people willingly give up a certain amount of privacy every time they connect to the Internet. It is unlikely the government is interested in anything in my hotel safe (an iPad 1, a couple of WordPerfect disks, and a backup USB extender) and as far as my computer and peripherals go, they can infiltrate them more easily from the Internet. The whole cloak and dagger thing seems over the top to me.

Now there are journalists and whistleblowers who have good reason to be suspicious and concerned about private investigators and government snoops. Still, there are likely better ways to perform the functions of Haven without having to commit an entire smartphone. Knowing is usually better than not knowing, so while Haven may not give you the whole story, at least you know your slight paranoia now can be justified.

In defense of those who find the Haven app beneficial to them, I close with a variation of a quote from the movie Catch 22: “Just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.”

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