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    Communicate in Secret with Smartphone Smoke Signals

    Written by

    DJ Pangburn


    Image: mangtronix/Flickr

    Imagine a communication protocol that didn't require text, photographs, or any other typical message content; a virtual smoke signal. That is precisely what artist and hacker Dennis de Bel is developing with his Smoke Messaging Service, or SMS, project.

    Born in 1984 (which couldn't be more appropriate given the motivation behind his SMS project), De Bel creates projects under his "dynamic art and design philosophy" and studio known as Dilly Dally Foundry, which he describes as an "analog fablab." Aside from SMS, De Bel has also created a secure digital postcard, and a broken iPhone sticker that makes thieves think twice about steeling the device.

    The point of the SMS is secure communication and De Bel, who first exhibited the SMS prototype at Berlin's Art Hack Day, has plans to further develop the hardware add-on. "SMS, or Smoke Messaging Service is a proof-of-concept for a modern day smoke communication protocol," he said. "It is a hardware add-on (or cover) for the iPhone that produces bursts of smoke." 

    At the push of a button, lamp-oil is heated and vaporized, sending a little cloud of smoke up in the air right in front of the phone's camera. "This cloud could potentially be picked up by the camera and translated in real-time," De Bel said. "But, that is for later implementation." For now, De Bel said that in order to use his SMS, one must first meet or know the person he or she wants to communicate with in order to agree on a protocol. 

    "For example, three puffs is 'hello,' 5 puffs is 'hello, I'm coming home later,'" he explained. "This brings responsibility, sociality, and makes you extra aware of what you will send." Users could then organize chains of people with smoking devices to communicate over large distances, using secret protocols that are hard to intercept or leak "because of the social coherence of the user group, something that cannot be said about guns for hire at the NSA." A reference perhaps to Edward Snowden's decision to break rank and leak NSA documents. 

    De Bel said that he's also working on alternative methods of communication, often based on "exploited, downgraded or obsolete technology." He is interested in how, by downgrading state of the art technology, one can expose its shortcomings. "For instance, my LofiPhone—a telegraph key made only from parts of an iPhone—is able to communicate morse-style wireless messages over several meters, just because of the electromagnetic energy it creates when being operated," he said, noting that the signal can be picked up by any AM radio, which he calls "now practically obsolete."

    "This way you could potentially communicate with a friend for free—free of networks, eavesdropping, without generating metadata, etc.," said De Bel. "But, of course, the AM band was commercialised long ago, and this would be illegal. In this respect, one could say that every time you read 'innovation' it should say 'commercialization.'"

    De Bel went on to say that the "iterative 'innovation' cycle of major corporations restrains real innovation," artificially keeping it at a steady, slow pace to maximize profit on any given platform. And that SMS is, in part, a reaction against this constrained innovation—a way to think around it. "Coming back to my SMS project, one could say it's reverse innovation (like reverse engineering) to find out what innovation really means today," he added.

    After tackling smoke signals, maybe De Bel could take on flag semaphore, since it has a natural parallel in computer science—semaphore programming. And, after that, beacon networks—although it's probably not a good idea to put fire in such close proximity to a smartphone, even if it would make for a good art hack. Then again, if we're so keen on a way to send private messages, maybe it's time we burned our favorite little surveillance machines.