We live in an age of smartphone self delusion. They remind us of our appointments, remember the phone numbers of our contacts, and locate restaurants. They universally facilitate what used to be the boring or tedious aspects of our lives. As a result, we subconsciously turn our attention away from anything that might cause us voluntarily to restrict the use of these devices.
As a result, the ill-intentioned members of society have taken advantage of this situation to a degree that threatens the very survival of our way of life.
The level of self delusion is astonishing. At the end of last year, Vanity Fair published a story about a grad student who had just “discovered” that malware existed that could take over complete control of a phone by merely visiting a website contains that malware.
The writer at Vanity Fair wrote it as though it was the first story to shed light on a terrible danger to smartphone users.
Yet, there are thousands of “gray area” software manufacturers that legally sell spyware under the caveat that you agree not to use the spyware for illegal purposes. There are even companies that make a living by testing and reviewing these spyware systems.
Every self-respecting cybersecurity expert has known of this problem for years. Getting the rank and file of smartphone users to recognize it has been the problem.
Forgetting, for a moment, the problem of trying to wake up smartphone users, a person might ask how, in the first place, we got into the fix of technologically creating phones that could allow such spyware to operate.
The answer, in the minds of most security specialists, is that phone manufacturers have erroneously relied almost exclusively on software to provide privacy and security. Any hacker can explain the error in this thinking: All software will eventually be hacked. We are fighting software with software. As the balance forever shifts, we are statistically vulnerable half the time.
Here is an example: Software engineers, many years ago, figured out how to turn off a phone using software commands. It was cool and neat and thrilled the software community. Before long, every smartphone manufacturer had incorporated this coolness into their phones. The hacker community was both salivating at the open invitation and rolling on the floor in laughter.
Why? Because if a software command is used to power down the phone, then that command can be intercepted by malware or spyware and the hacker then has control over when and if the phone is powered down. That means that spyware can intercept the software switch to turn the phone off. The spyware then simulates a power down, ending with a blank screen. But the phone is still on and is spying.
Eventually, every hackable function of smartphones was controlled by software switches, giving full access to hackers to control the WiFi, Bluetooth, geolocation, camera, microphone, the factory reset function, automatic system updates, etc. We have given the keys to the kingdom, blindly and willingly, to the world’s hackers.
Pleas from the cybersecurity community to smartphone manufacturers to fix this this horrific problem by returning to the less “cool” air-gapped physical switches have fallen on deaf ears. In desperation, I decided to do it myself.
The John McAfee Privacy Phone contains a bank of switches on the back cover that allow the user to physically disconnect the battery, the antennas for WiFi, Bluetooth and geolocation, the camera and microphone, etc. It also will not allow the phone to connect to a Stingray or any other IMSI catcher device that is used to intercept mobile phone traffic for the purpose of surveillance. In addition, it contains a web search anonymizer to prevent web searches from triggering an avalanche of ads to buy T-shirts whenever a user does does a web search for T-shirts.
It is Version 1. It is not hack proof. But it does give the user enormous power over his or her privacy and it is light years ahead of the Blackphone or any other phone claiming to be secure. It will be available later this year. Version 2 will be available in the Summer of 2018. It will be as hack proof as humanly possible.
John McAfee is a cybersecurity pioneer who developed the first ever commercial anti-virus software.