If you’ve been paying attention to modern privacy concerns, like the NSA spying exposed by Edward Snowden, you might have wondered if you can protect yourself. The short answer is no, anyone with enough time and knowledge can gain access to your phone (or computer), and all of the information it stores.
In the VICE’s “State Of Surveillance,” Shane Smith asks Snowden himself about ways to make your phone harder to hack, or “going dark.” According to the famous whistleblower, it’s “a pretty big ask.”
This made me wonder what an attempt at going dark might look like for a regular person who isn’t tech-savvy, and I decided to take up the challenge.
So I turned to Craigslist, the armpit of the Internet, to find a cheap, used smartphone.
As shown in “State Of Surveillance,” hackers can remotely gain access to a phone’s cameras and microphones, and Snowden explains that going dark means disabling this hardware.
My current phone has been through a lot. Its display has been smashed on a cobblestone street in Amsterdam, a bathroom floor in Copenhagen, and during a show at The Knitting Factory in Brooklyn. After these expensive misadventures, I’ve been hoping to keep it safe until I’m due for an upgrade, which meant ripping it apart was out of the question.
So I turned to Craigslist, the armpit of the Internet, to find a cheap, used smartphone. After some searching and negotiating with strangers, I picked up an iPhone 4 from a man and his eight-week-old puppy in downtown Vancouver.
My neck was sore, my eyes were bloodshot, and my boyfriend was calling me Howard Hughes.
Getting to the guts of the iPhone 4 is a multi-step process that involves removing more than a dozen tiny screws. Armed with nail clippers, tweezers, and one worn screwdriver, I slowly pulled the phone apart.
Once you get down to the cameras, they just pop out, but the microphones are more complicated. All of the online advice I came across described how to disable them through the phone’s settings, but I was looking to physically dismantle. After watching enough tutorials to be semi-confident where the microphones were, I crushed one mic with the nail clippers and pried the other one out with tweezers.
After a long night hunched over the phone, I had finally removed the hardware and reassembled the phone. My neck was sore, my eyes were bloodshot, and my boyfriend was calling me Howard Hughes.
Surprisingly, it powered back on, and a test recording revealed the microphone destruction was a success. But a second test using earbuds with an external (therefore unhackable) microphone, didn’t work either. I tried another pair of earbuds and got the same result. The phone wasn’t recognizing any headphones at all.
If your friends and family are anything like mine, you can ask them to try using Signal, but they won’t.
I ripped the phone apart again, and eventually discovered a tear in the ribbon cable that connects the headphone jack. During my attempts to make the phone more private, I’d destroyed the ability to use it as a phone.
After the iPhone setback, I tried to investigate less intense ways to help my regular phone go dark(ish).
The best way to protect privacy in calls and messages is through an end-to-end encryption app, like Signal. But if both parties aren’t using the app, your messages and calls will be sent through regular, unencrypted channels. If your friends and family are anything like mine, you can ask them to try using Signal, but they won’t. There are more popular apps (WhatsApp, iMessage) that provide end-to-end encryption, but they come with different sets of privacy concerns.
Unless I unfriended anyone who wasn’t a privacy nerd (sorry, Grandma), most of my conversations would remain unencrypted.
Snowden was right. Going dark is hard, and maybe even impossible for someone like me.
Feeling increasingly hopeless about my chances of going dark, I looked into browsing privacy, and downloaded Orbot and Orfox. As a proxy app and Tor browser, they aim to provide Internet anonymity by bouncing communications through a set of relays. After Googling every conceivable version of “what is proxy configuration??????”, I got Orfox to work.
All those extra relays that make the browsing more secure also make it incredibly slow. We’re talking minutes to load a single webpage, and I couldn’t bring myself to use it for more than a day.
Snowden was right. Going dark is hard, and maybe even impossible for someone like me. I learned that the iPhone 4 has too many screws, ribbon cables are easy to tear, and my privacy would be better protected by using carrier pigeons.
My failure to go dark highlighted my own technical ignorance, but that isn’t the only thing it exposed: most people use their phones like me, without thinking that its mic may be remotely accessed or its browser history pillaged. Safeguarding our privacy is so arduous that we don’t even bother trying, placated by the idea that even if hackers can access our devices, they probably won’t.