The term they used for this in the video teaser released for the episode is “going black,” and it involves removing the camera and microphone array from a commercial handset. The idea is to make it impossible for a third party, be it a hacker or a government surveillance unit, to turn on your microphone or camera remotely to learn information about you.
Snowden admitted in his chat with Smith that it was difficult to ever really avoid surveillance from organizations like the NSA, but asserted that, “If you know you’re actively under threat, if you know your phone has been hacked, these are ways you can ensure your phone works for you rather than working for somebody else.”
For anyone looking to “go black,” themselves, the process is not overly complicated. After using a heat gun or similar device to loosen smartphone adhesives, the covers can be removed and the internals accessed. From there it’s simply a case of detaching a few ribbon cables and loosening up some stubborn solder.
When Smith raises the obvious question of how to use the phone after removing the microphones, Snowden suggests using an external microphone along the lines of a set of earbuds with a built-in mic.
The only problem with all of this though, is that Snowden suggests it would still be almost impossible to know if your handset had been hacked. That makes any move like this a little beside the point, especially if you feel like you may be under investigation and your handset being hacked is a real possibility.
We’d be surprised if Snowden himself walked around with a camera and mic-equipped phone, for example.
The Snowden/surveillance episode of Vice News goes live this Friday at 11 pm ET/PT on HBO.