Edward Snowden caused an international firestorm in 2013 when he copied and leaked classified information about the government while working as a contractor for the National Security Agency. Snowden’s revelations — that the NSA was running a mass surveillance operation on Americans through the internet and various electronic devices — immediately branded him a heretic in some spaces and a hero in others.
That conflicted legacy has followed him into his first major announcement since being holed up in asylum abroad. His new app, “Haven,” a joint venture with the Guardian Project and Freedom of the Press Foundation, launched this week on the Android platform.
New anti-spying app Haven has some privacy concerns of its own
The app is being called a “personal security system” for its ability to monitor one’s surroundings and feed that information to another device. The app can also detect and tell you what internal surveillance programs are running on your device.
Here’s how it works: Today’s smartphone has a litany of sensors — the camera, microphones, etc. — sending information to different databases. The app harnesses those sensors by turning the phone into a sentinel that can alert you when it and your other electronic devices have been tampered with.
Billed as an “open source security system in your pocket,” Haven is designed to work on an old second phone that can run the free, open-source program, Snowden says in a promo video for the app’s launch.
“Haven turns any spare Android phone into a safe room that fits into your pocket,” Snowden says. “When you think about a smartphone today, they’ve got an incredible amount of surveillance equipment that is built into them. Typically, two cameras, three microphones, they’ve got barometers, an accelerometer, light sensors, there’s always an internet connection, they have the power to understand everything around them.”
“But what if we could use all that to do something good in the world?” Snowden says. “Something more than just letting Facebook track everyone that you’ve ever loved?”
While Snowden and the organizations that helped build the app are clearly marketing it toward investigative journalists and activists, the app’s premise of being a “personal security system” comes with some very real privacy concerns.
With Haven being basically a monitoring app for your surroundings, there is still the unanswered question of where the data is being stored. And what makes it even more problematic is that the software is open source, meaning anybody can tamper with it and — at least in theory — commandeer it.
Online, there are some especially vocal critics of the technology. Commenters on Facebook are decrying Snowden’s involvement because of, well, he’s Snowden.
“Uhhh…Yeah… I want to trust MY personal security, information, etc. to an App, created by Snowden. Who lives in RUSSIA! Nothing could possibly go wrong!!!” said one Facebook commenter.
Another said this: RU crazy? Right or wrong, letting a guy who stole US intelligence install a surveillance app on you phone?”
Despite the surface levity in these posts, the underlying concerns about the app are valid. And entrusting your safety to an old “burner” phone that probably suffers from some functionality issues (which is why you likely replaced it) may not be the best use of it.
So basically, the Haven app just sounds like a new spin on a DIY security system of sort. With that being the case, here are some good pointers to remember when looking for a DIY home security system.
- Count the cost: Security systems can break the bank — but only if you let them. Five years ago, comprehensive security systems could cost you thousands of dollars. Now, robust systems can be found for as little as $200 with additional components that could be added later.
- Customer service & support: When it comes to entrusting your security to some third-party app or system, it’s a small ask to expect some sort of responsiveness from the company you purchased the device from. Make sure, the company has 24/7 staff on hand either via phone or chat or both to answer your questions and attend to your security needs.
- Contract or no? Some home security consumers are getting duped into signing years-long “monitoring” contracts for services that are obtuse and confusing. Beware the scourge of “Zombie contracts,” which contain fine print designed to entrap consumers into nearly impossible terms to opt out of.
Money expert Clark Howard says it even more bluntly: “First, ask if a potential company requires a contract. You never want to sign a long-term contract. If you do, you open yourself to the danger of hidden rollover provisions.”