Earlier this month one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, Jennifer Lawrence, along with many other actresses, experienced the nightmare that we all dread: Her personal photos were stolen and shared with all the world. The breach was accomplished using a brute force phishing method where iCloud user names and passwords were repeatedly guessed until the hackers came upon the right combination, and it was just the latest example of how vulnerable our photos are in the age of mobile phones and cloud storage.
Add to that the recent revelations that the NSA has ways to remotely enable the cameras and mics on our smartphones and it’s easier than ever to feel like not only our personal pictures, but our entire lives could be compromised at any time.
Apple has vowed to improve its security measures. But if you’re looking for something more sturdy, a San Antonio, Texas company called Vysk has developed an iPhone case and companion app that is likely the best consumer-grade protection against camera and photo hacking ever developed.
“Smartphones are a window into our lives. It wakes up with us in the morning, goes to work or school with us, goes out with friends, goes on dates, goes on vacations, and records all the special moments of our lives, but it’s like living in a glass house with no curtains,” says Victor Cochia, a U.S. Army veteran who cofounded Vysk along with cryptographic expert Dr. Michael Fiske. “Although we don’t have anything to hide when we are in our homes, it doesn’t mean we want someone looking in on us at all times. We have a certain level of privacy that we desire and deserve.”
With the Vysk smartphone case–available for the iPhone 5 and 5s–Cochia said he and his team set out to create the “curtain you need on your phone.”
The Vysk Everyday Privacy Case (EP1) takes a two-pronged approach to securing your smartphone’s cameras and ensuring your photos and videos can’t be hacked. The first prong is mechanical. The EP1 case features a simple shutter that completely seals the front and rear cameras inside the case. When the shutter is enabled, which the user does by simply sliding a switch, it is not possible for either camera to see or record anything. This means if someone–whether the NSA or a hacker–compromised your phone’s cameras all they would see is darkness.
But Vysk knows that while a compromised camera is a potentially greater security threat since the intruder can monitor you and your surroundings in real time, the way most people will have their privacy violated on their mobile phones is by a hacker or thief gaining access to the photos and videos you’ve already shot.
That’s where the second, software-focused, prong of the Vysk security case comes in. Users who have the EP1 get access to the Vysk Private Gallery app. The Private Gallery is an encrypted, password-protected app designed to be a secure repository for photos and videos. Users can store photos and videos in two separate inner galleries, effectively separating, say, life and work. Each inner gallery uses a unique PIN code for entry. The Private Gallery app encrypts the photos and videos before they are stored on the device. Even if a user backs up their phone’s data to iCloud, the files are still stored as encrypted data and cannot be deciphered.
“The iCloud hacking case demonstrates that we all need to pay closer attention to the way that we use computing devices and the way we store our data,” says Cochia, who also notes that it’s not just celebrities that need to be worried about photo hacking. “It’s become a common tactic for stalkers and cyber bullying.”
The EP1 case, which also features a built-in battery, retails for $119 and comes in red, blue, gold, and black.
But Vysk isn’t stopping with this case. They’re currently working on next generation case called the QS1. The company says it will solve the problem of eavesdropping and hacking “by creating a secure environment within the case that is separate from the phone’s vulnerable operating system.”
In addition to the camera shutter and security app, the QS1 will include an external processor embedded in the case to encrypt calls, a microphone jammer to disrupt the device’s internal microphones, and an independent microphone that will allow users to encrypt their calls before the audio enters the device.
It’s a bit sad–and frightening–that Vysk’s cases seem like a reasonable tool for people to have nowadays. Back when point-and-shoot cameras were our main tools for photography we didn’t have to worry about privacy too much. Our smartphones have made our lives easier, but they have made them less secure too–even with all the existing security measures built in.
“The celebrity photo leak scandal is an example of hackers exploiting social engineering to work their way around the system,” says Cochia. “We’re living in a world of diminishing privacy where any of the common security answers needed for password retrieval can be found with more and more ease. When almost every detail of a person’s life can be found on the Internet and used to exploit security weaknesses, it’s time to change gears and adopt more sophisticated technology.”