Oct 3, 2018

Old Android phones get security boost

A cyclist passes Google headquarters in 2011. Photo: Nehring via Getty

Jigsaw, a humanitarian technology incubator sharing a parent company with Google, released a new app Wednesday granting old phones Android's current defenses against a favorite trick of authoritarian governments, tampering with traffic to the internet's phonebook-like DNS servers.

  • "It's important to spread freedom to legacy devices," said Jigsaw software engineer Ben Schwartz.

Why it matters: DNS translates text-based web addresses (like "axios.com") to machine readable internet addresses. Intercepting that traffic, regimes are able to reroute citizens trying to visit unflattering news websites or dissident groups to any other website. Criminals could use the same tactic to send victims to malicious websites.

Details: Newer Android phones encrypt traffic to secure DNS servers, making it impossible to tell what site a user is trying to go to.

  • Intra brings that security to any device released in the past 7 years, reaching 99% of devices in use worldwide.
  • Intra is open source, in case a country blocks the app store app from reaching potential users.

What they're saying: "Part of Jigsaw's methodology is to talk to people in the world to see what issues we could tackle. We noticed people in Venezuela were particularly at risk of DNS manipulation, which was being used to block access to journalism," said product manager Justin Henck.

The bottom line: Jigsaw opened a low-key test of Intra in Venezuela. Without Jigsaw promoting the trial, the software was downloaded worldwide, spread entirely by word of mouth.

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