Edward Snowden creates Haven, a security app for journalists and human rights defenders

By Obert Madondo |  | Dec 23, 2017

Most political dissidents, human rights activists, journalists and other sensitive users of technology in repressive regimes live in constant fear of online surveillance. They must always worry that police and intelligence agents might break into their home, office or hotel room and gain unauthorized access to their computers while they’re away.

NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden and his team of developers at the San Francisco-based Freedom of the Press Foundation (FPF) have created Haven, a free and open source personal security system designed specifically for journalists and human rights defenders.

Announced Friday, the app transforms your cheap second Android phone into a sensor capable of capturing and reporting intrusions to your physical space and possessions. The software harnesses the surveillance technologies already built into most smartphones, including cameras, microphones and light sensors, which already give these devices the “power to understand everything that’s going on around them”.

In the video above Snowden, the president of Freedom of the Press Foundation, says these capabilities can be used to “do something good in the world”. He says:

We designed Haven as a tool for investigative journalists, rights defenders and people at risk by combining the power of these sensors with the world’s most secure communications technologies, things like Signal and Tor. Haven makes it harder to silence citizens.

Now based in Russia, Snowden leaked a treasurer-trove of classified documents exposing the NSA’s indiscriminate and warrantless surveillance of US citizens back in 2013. His act of conscience “enriched democratic debate worldwide“.

Haven was a collaboration between FPF and the nonprofit Guardian Project. Introducing Haven, FPF executive director Trevor Timm wrote:

Imagine you are a journalist working in a hostile foreign country and you are worried about security services breaking into your hotel room and rifling through your belongings and computer while you are away. Haven detects changes in the environment using the sensors in a typical smartphone—the camera, microphone, gyroscope, accelerometer, ambient light, USB power—to alert you if anyone enters your space or attempts to tamper with your devices while you aren’t there.

The Haven app can then send end-to-end encrypted alerts to your phone via Signal, and you can monitor activity remotely through a Tor Onion Service. Importantly, Haven does not rely on the cloud and does not transmit data that third parties can access unless you have SMS functionality turned on in situations where you don’t have data or wifi.

While Haven will benefit at-risk journalists and activists the most, it turns a smartphone into a security device for everyone. According to the folks at the Guardian Project, “through Haven, we have unexpectedly created the most powerful, secure and private baby monitor system ever.”

Micah Lee, a computer security engineer and open source software developer, originally suggested the idea of a smartphone-based personal security system to Snowden.

“Haven can also be used as a cheap home or office security system to detect break-ins or vandalism while you’re away, positioning the phone to send you photographs when someone walks within range,” Lee wrote on The Intercept on Friday. “Or you can use it to monitor for wildlife in rural areas, or to capture evidence of human rights violations and disappearances.”

Wired’s Andy Greenberg, who interviewed Snowden, explained some of the “serious measures” Haven already has in place to answer privacy concerns:

But Haven takes some serious measures to prevent its surveillance mechanisms from being turned against a phone’s owner. It integrates the encrypted messaging app Signal, so that every alert, photo, and audio clip it sends to the user is end-to-end encrypted. As another safeguard, users can also configure Haven to work with the Android app Orbot, which has an option to turn your phone into a so-called Tor Onion Service—essentially, a server on the darknet. That means the Haven phone’s event log can be accessed remotely from your desktop or another phone, but only over Tor’s near-untraceable connection. In theory, that means no eavesdropper can break in to access those audio and photo snapshots of your sensitive spaces.

The important thing here is that you’re in control. Haven allows you to decide which sensors to activate, the corresponding level of sensitivity, and what to do with the recorded evidence. If you so choose, you can receive instant encrypted notifications from your Haven-enabled device in real-time from anywhere in the world through say, Signal, the world’s most trusted secure communication technology.

Haven is currently in BETA version, which means you can test the app yourself and provide the kind of feedback that would enable the developers to improve its capabilities. You can download the Haven app from the Google Play store and F-Droid.

Obert Madondo is an Ottawa-based blogger, activist, photographer, digital rights enthusiast, former political aide, and former international development administrator. He’s the founder and editor of these blogs: The Canadian ProgressiveZimbabwean Progressive, and Charity Files. Follow him on Twitter: @Obiemad