Blocking Google Glass, Drone, and Wireless Microphone Snoops: Cyborg Unplug


Cyborg Unplug

In The Diamond Age, Or, A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer, the 1995 sci-fi novel by Neal Stephenson, denizens surrounded themselves with clouds of nanotech devices to protect against surveillance and attack. We are not there yet, but with advent of devices like Google Glass, drones and wireless microphones, the era of pervasive surveillance is fast-dawning. Already many restaurants and bars have taken to banning Google Glass to protect the privacy of their patrons.

Now a new company, Cyborg Unplug, allows people to block, not just ban, wifi-connected surveillance devices. How does it work? Many establishments offer free open wifi services to customers, students, and workers. Cyborg Unplug kicks selected surveillance devices off the wifi network. As Cyborg Unplug explains:

Every wireless (WiFi) device has a unique hardware signature assigned to it by the manufacturer. These signatures are broadcasted by wireless devices as they probe for, connect to and use wireless networks.

Cyborg Unplug sniffs the air for these signatures, looking for devices its owner has selected to ban. If a banned device is discovered an alarm is triggered (LED, audio or message*). Further, if that device is found to be connected to a network that Cyborg Unplug is trained to guard, a stream of special 'de-authentication' signals (packets) are sent to disconnect it. It does this automatically, without any interaction required from its owner.

* Due to technical limitations, alarm features may be restricted to the high-priced model.

The inventors assert that Cyborg Unplug is legal since the owners of wifi networks have the right to block connections to devices they don't want. They also explain that it is not jammer which blocks radio bands by flooding them with electronic noise.

On the other hand, Cyborg Unplug offers two settings: Territory Mode and All Out Mode. As the inventors observe:

The recommended mode is Territory Mode, disconnecting target devices from selected network(s) owned and operated by the user. The other mode is All Out Mode, which disconnects all detected target devices from any network they are associated with, including paired connections with smartphones. Please note that this latter mode may not be legal within your jurisdiction. We take no responsibility for the trouble you get yourself into if you choose to deploy your Cyborg Unplug in this mode.

Users operating in All Out Mode, could run afoul of the Feds. As Betabeat reports:

In the FCC's own, unambiguous words:

We remind and warn consumers that it is a violation of federal law to use a cell jammer or similar devices that intentionally block, jam, or interfere with authorized radio communications such as cell phones, police radar, GPS, and Wi-Fi.

On a personal note: My college friends and I often reflect upon how thankful we are that we did not live in an era with ubiquitous cell phone cameras. Just saying.

Addendum: See my colleague Jesse Walker's insightful article, "Your Right to Call Your Girlfriend Ends Where My 900-Seat Cinerama Begins," on the law and etiquette of jamming cell phones in movie theaters.