Is That an Unprotected Phone in Your Pocket?

Close your eyes and picture this: You’ve finally managed to take that long-awaited, well-deserved vacation-of-a-lifetime with your partner/spouse/BFF. You’re overlooking the Mediterranean Sea/watching majestic elephants roam through Kruger National Park/enjoying the vista from atop Matterhorn. Envision how peaceful it is, how excited you are to finally experience the sights and sounds around you. You are immersed in the moment.

And your cell phone chimes. Oh, look. It’s a call from a telemarketer.

Try this scenario: Your employer has sent you on a business trip to China/Russia/Saudi Arabia/Malaysia and you need to protect your devices and communications from surveillance. It’s impractical to buy and configure temporary devices to have only minimal information stored on them, and any communication back to “home base” can still be tracked and/or recorded...if you're a ripe target.

Last but not least: You’re a security expert and you love technology! You have several phones and multiple computers. They’re all secured to the hilt—you have long, complex, unique passwords for every site/app/account. You carry around your YubiKey. You have premium subscriptions to top-rated malware scanners. Everything is encrypted. You’d never use a home assistant. Location, NFC, and Bluetooth are disabled whenever possible. But since you’re a security expert, you understand that no connected technology can be easy to use and 100% secure, and it doesn’t take a security genius to know that tracking is occurring at every turn we take.

Maybe you’re paranoid. Perhaps you feel, as many of us in the security community do, that it’s our responsibility to protect our devices and privacy as much as possible. Perchance you realize that disconnecting for periods of time is healthy for your body and mind. Whatever the scenario, there are numerous, legitimate instances when people need to carry connected devices or simply feel better carrying devices (I’m being chased by a rhino! Send help immediately!), but also want or need to make the devices inaccessible and just turning them off won’t do the trick (The rhino isn’t likely to digitally surveil you, but a government might).

Device convenience without signal interception

Silent Pocket understands your daily struggle to be connected and secure, to exercise the right to carry your devices but disconnect. The company makes Faraday cages that block wireless signals, shield devices and documents from RFID/NFC, and protect you from radiation and other electromagnetic frequencies. A quick Google search will tell you that Faraday products aren’t exactly in short supply, but the cool thing about Silent Pocket is that you won’t look like a Doomsday Prepper carrying one of their laptop bags or when whipping out your new Apple Card. Their products are well made and high quality, and they come in a variety of colors and materials so you can fashion your personal style. (Might I suggest the August Tech Wellness Cell Phone Sleeve in leopard print for your safari?)

Aside from a keen fashion sense, what Ed and I found interesting about Silent Pocket was their backstory. In the late 1990s, Aaron Zar was a kid whose dad was tinkering with tech. His dad was a tech enthusiast and early adopter, but also had a healthy dose of skepticism around the idea of privacy in a world of massive consumerization. Out of sheer curiosity, the elder Zar wanted to see if he could cloak a device and sewed a pouch that was able to prevent a signal from reaching it. At the time, adhering to the universally-accepted teen code of conduct, Aaron thought his dad was a bit crazy. But less than a decade later, he started to see the value in blocking wireless signals at times.

In 2012, Aaron left a job selling high-end wine to join his father and develop a product that could protect people from the negative aspects of an always-connected world. “Our number one goal from the onset,” Aaron told me and Ed during a recent call, “was to make our product less of a fear mongering tool and more of a subtle, discrete technology with an embedded feature which allows people to disconnect."

A Faraday cage with a healthy twist

Security and privacy wonks understand the need to keep private information, well, private and secure, so I won’t spend much time in this post extolling the virtues of a Faraday cage. Suffice it to say, we all need our devices to function, but when we don't need them to be on or when we’re concerned about unauthorized access, isn't it sensible to make them inaccessible to potential lurkers? Let's say you’re walking the Black Hat/DEF CON/BSides LV conference halls next summer; you’re going to have your devices with you. You’re going to need to use them at some point, and presumably you’re not connected to the conference wireless, Bluetooth, GPS, NFC, etc. and your VPN is always on. Still, your connection can be intercepted. If you don’t believe me, just sit through one of the end-of-event NOC reviews. Instead of throwing your device into your conference-supplied backpack and exposing yourself to becoming the highlight reel of “traffic we observed during XConference,” you could throw your device into your Silent Pocket backpack and feel confident the guy with the WiFi pineapple isn’t snooping.

The other benefit to using Faraday products for your devices is something many of us don't think about enough: health and wellness. To function, devices need to emit signals, and those signals expose us to low doses of electromagnetic radiation that could adversely affect our health. Perhaps that’s a little too hippy for you. Research shows that device usage has negative effects on our sleep, can cause muscle pain, strains our eyes, and stresses our brains. In fact, new research suggests that overactive neural activity, which can be induced by stress, overthinking, and lack of downtime, can shorten humans’ life spans.

It’s not new news that disconnecting is good for us. It’s not a groundbreaking idea that being in nature or painting a picture or dancing or being present with friends—activities which don’t require electronic devices—reduce our stress levels, allow us to relax, and make us more productive, creative human beings! Yes, tuning out for a while each day makes us better people and better employees. Still, the temptation to reach for our phone, to send a text, to check our work email to prove to our boss how valuable we are, nags at us every minute, especially when we can hear that notification sound.

Will putting your devices in a Faraday bag/wallet/briefcase/tablet sleeve force you to not use your tech and be one with nature or talk to your family more? No, in many cases you’ll still have your devices on your person. However, removing the constant reminder of emails, texts, and app notifications by disabling connectivity entirely takes away the pressure to respond or follow up on “just this one message...”

Cool tech without the techie vibe

“I didn’t always view [our company] as cool,” said Zar during our call, “but now I am completely obsessed with it. A $1,000 briefcase should be more than a fashion accessory.” In Silent Pocket’s case, you can buy a briefcase, attaché, or rollerboard for much less than $1,000 and you’ll get a well-made item with privacy protection built in. If you’re someone who needs a brand name fashion house logo on the side of your bag, maybe Silent Pocket won’t appeal to you. That said, you can get your own logo emblazoned on your bag (or you can simply choose from sleek black, charcoal grey, or a variety of other colors to fit your personal style). In the future, Zar and team hope to influence other accessory brands to adopt the privacy-by-design concept, and they’re eager to partner with privacy-forward companies to provide the technology.

Silent Pocket isn’t the type of company Ed and I usually talk to, but chatting with Aaron was a lot of fun and we were really impressed with the quality and variety of products Silent Pocket offers. Ed believes Silent Pocket can help teens and 20-somethings learn the joys of disconnecting and keep them from radiating themselves into oblivion. Me, I’m fairly sure we’ll pry teens’ phones from their cold, dead hands. However, we know that the security community is definitely a good place to showcase travel accessories with built in privacy and security control.