Ever since the introduction of the Patriot Act in 2001, Adam Harvey, a Brooklyn-based designer whose work is based around the slogan “in privacy we trust,” has focused on designing products to help people “go off the grid.”
His latest privacy device, the OFF Pocket, is an electromagnetic wave-blocking cellphone case that he claims makes a phone, and its owner, untraceable. Harvey posted a campaign to raise funds for the OFF Pocket on Kickstarter on August 2, and since then backers have pledged over $27,000 toward its first product run. While we may be living in a time of heightened worry about government snooping, does the average Joe really need an OFF Pocket? Or is this merely the product of a paranoid mind, a tinfoil hat for your smartphone? “People have said that I’m paranoid for years,” Harvey told Fast Company with a laugh. “Now the things I’ve been concerned about for ages are mainstream news items.”
The OFF Pocket’s metalized fabric works by shielding the interior of the case from electromagnetic signals in the 800 megahertz to 2.4 gigahertz range, covering all cellular band frequencies. According to Harvey’s extensive field testing–and he’s had his OFF Pocket prototype and testing antenna in the Sony Building in New York–CDMA, GSM, 3G, 4G, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and GPS are 100% blocked by the metal-fabric case. Harvey also claims that the OFF Pocket shields users from the radiation emitted by cellphones. “I don’t focus on that part,” he says. “The OFF Pocket’s a privacy accessory, but it’s an added benefit.” Harvey built the first iteration of his signal blocker into the back pocket of his jeans, and the current model’s made from a blend of “flexible, rigid, crinkly and drape-able” metal fibers to balance functionality and usability.
Wrapping one’s phone in a metalized fabric case that renders a cellphone temporarily unusable may be counterintuitive in a plugged-in era, but post-Edward Snowden, Harvey is hoping that an $85 hack will have its appeal. “Everyone’s being spied on today and we’re also doing a lot of spying on each other,” he says. “It’s reminiscent of the Cold War era. You have to realize that whether you’re an interesting person or not, you’re interesting to somebody.”
The ability to pop a terrorist or drug dealer’s cellphone inside an OFF Pocket is slightly alarming, however Harvey doesn’t think his design-centric product is an intuitive choice for criminals. “It’s antagonistic to surveillance technology but I designed it for flaunting or stylish use,” he says. “Plus, if I were making cell phones I would have to think about criminals just the same.”
The OFF Pocket isn’t Harvey’s first foray into disruptive design solutions. In 2009, Harvey created CV Dazzle, an anti-face detection technology developed for his masters thesis at the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU. The product’s name was a nod to the monochrome, cubist-inspired “dazzle” camouflage used by British Admiralty and U.S. Naval ships in WWI, created to mislead enemies about the position of the ship.
In January, Harvey and his project collaborator, fashion designer Johanna Bloomfield, unveiled Stealth Wear in London, a clothing collection including thermal imaging-resistant burqas, the technology commonly used by UAVs and drones. “If it’s good, technology used in wars makes its way into the mainstream consumer market. For the last decade all of the research and money and smarts have gone towards making better cameras,” he says. “Little time and intelligence is devoted to creating technology to shield you.”
But security technologist and blogger Bruce Schneier thinks Harvey is on the “loony” side of the privacy debate. “I think it’s [Stealth Wear] a valuable public statement and I’m glad people are thinking about this but it doesn’t look like clothing any normal person would wear,” he says. And Schneier’s not convinced by the OFF Pocket either. “We’re not going to get back our privacy technically,” he says. “If you want to be off the grid, turn your phone off. Why do you need a jammer? Why can’t you use the off button? My off button’s pretty instantaneous.”
Harvey’s fielded “off button” and “airplane mode” questions throughout the design process and on Kickstarter, although he argues using the OFF Pocket is not in competition with either function. “With the OFF Pocket you are going beyond the operating system and you’re taking control of the phone,” he says. “No matter what operating system, and whether it’s infected with software, the OFF Pocket works the same in every situation. That’s the kind of security that’s reassuring.”
Schneier does think the OFF Pocket’s “secondary function,” as a behavior modification tool, “sounds like a good idea.” It’s a design concept Harvey’s built into the OFF Pocket from the start. “For people who are always plugged in the goal is to be able to unplug once in a while,” Harvey says. “I designed the OFF Pocket so it’s easy to put your phone inside, but it’s not so easy that you pull it out right away.”
“People will be spying and you’ll be spying,” Harvey notes. “It’s all a game we’re involved in. The OFF Pocket is just a game piece.”