Journalist, content writer and translator based in Berlin.

A way to hide your phone against where you are, what you talk about, and being a microphone for those interested?

TOCA, meaning foxhole, is the appropriate name for the phone sleeve designed by Denis Altschul, Luter Filho, and Andre Wakko. The trio design products to protect people from their phone; especially radiation and surveillance. Their latest smartphone sleeves – available for pre-order and shipping soon – boast a range of features that aim to build on the runaway success of their first designs.

Meeting the guys and talking about their product got me thinking about why ordinary people would use such products. What kind of world are we living in, that such a product is even necessary? Because, after talking to the guys, it dawned on me that their phone sleeve is not a product for a selective few. Unfortunately, it isn’t just for those people hiding in the forest somewhere with tinfoil on their heads, or criminals escaping surveillance – it has become a necessity for anyone with a smartphone.

Denis

Plants and tin foil. There is not a lot of research on the effects of radiation on the human body. When mobile phones became a mass product in the 1990s, there was a lot of talk about the dangers of radiation. This seems like a lifetime ago. Twenty years later, we still don’t know exactly what the dangers of electromagnetic radiation are.

Cell phones were not widely used until the early 1990s, so long-term effects may not manifest themselves for a while. But since cell phones (and other electronic devices) are more widespread than ever, and being used by younger people, the WHO have stressed the need for further research.

Younger people have a thinner skull, so they are potentially at more risk. Blackberry even advises users to keep the phone at a minimum of 25 millimetres of your body at all times.

What else can you do to minimize the health risks of the devices you carry on or near your body during the day? You could build a Faraday cage, and spend the bulk of your day inside it to shield yourself from electromagnetic fields. Recent studies, however, suggest the cage may not be fail-safe. And if you want a social life anyway, or any life at all for that matter, it’s easier to limit the radiation of the devices themselves. This allows you to go out, have fun, and take your phone with you in a Faraday bag.

FOMO. For many, the phone actually dictates life, instead of just being a handy, helpful device. You get a call while writing a report. Replying to a text makes you miss your bus stop. Facebook reminds you of a party and, before you know it, you’re dancing the night away when you were looking forward to a quiet night at home.

FOMO, or fear of missing out, is widespread because your phone constantly reminds you of what you’re missing out on. I have friends that leave their phone on all the time, waking up to notifications and messages throughout the night. Deep, uninterrupted sleep is necessary for erasing toxins from the brain, so it can’t  be healthy to leave the phone on constantly.

toca01_hrI tried the TOCA phone sleeve for a week and the results were intriguing. Usually I put my phone in sleep mode at night – this means some selected contacts, like my parents, can reach me if they call twice. I leave my phone on the other side of the room too, so that I won’t be tempted to check messages and to protect me (a little) from radiation.

The past week I was not available at all during the night. If something had happened to a loved one, I wouldn’t have known until morning. It reminded me of times when you would get a letter delivered weeks after the passing of a loved one, even though I was only unreachable for a few hours at a time.

Being unavailable at night took some time getting used to, but being unreachable during the day took even longer. I struggled with using the sleeve at first, but by the end of the week I was used to it and rather enjoyed it. It made me feel in control, focused and anonymous. Like being in a city where no one knows you.

People have blogged extensively about the benefits of uninterrupted work. Some only check their email twice a day, others turn their phone off to help get their creative juices flowing. With a little expectation management among friends and family, it is not a problem to be ‘off the grid’ for periods of time. Still, most of us have forgotten that phones are supposed to support our lives, not decide our lives for us through a barrage of notifications, calls, emails and Facebook events.

Society. The physical and mental reasons are clear, but for me the biggest reason to use this kind of phone sleeve is the society we live in. I might not have been so inclined, if it were not for the lack of control I have over the data collected through my phone.

Largely thanks to Edward Snowden, we now know what is being collected and stored about our lives. Most of us ignore this information, thinking there is no chance we could be the subject of government surveillance. As we would never know if our phones were hacked, this presumption of safety remains intact.

Sadly, you (or someone you talk to) do not have to be the subject of surveillance to have your metadata collected, as Snowden explains. Snowden described metadata as a private investigator: it might not hear what you are saying, but it follows you around all day, knows who you are talking to, for how long, and were you go next.

It is not that hard to get this metadata. Hacking the phone is not even necessary. IMSI (International Mobile Subscriber Identity) catchers can also do it, and are used to intercept calls from all mobile phones in their radius. These catchers are widely used by police forces all over the world. The problem is that, though an IMSI catcher might be deployed to watch a specific person, the data and calls of hundreds of other people is also stored at the same time.

Snowden states in the video that the IMSI catcher was designed for aiming missiles at terrorists in war zones – but 6 months after being used in Yemen they were deployed on everyday civilians in the USA. In Germany alone digital tools like IMSI catchers, silent text messages, and Trojan horses were used 210.000 times in the first six months of 2016. That is 1153 times a day!

‘Innocence until proven guilty’ meant that, amongst other things, a warrant was necessary before the government could wire tap a phone. Nowadays, technology makes it possible to collect data from ordinary civilians as by-product of an investigation into a specific person.

For whom? This all means that, sadly, nowadays a protective phone sleeve is useful for everyone with a smartphone. It protects you and your children from radiation from your phone, but it also restores the spirit of the law; we’re once more innocent until proven guilty.

There are other ways to be unavailable (airplane mode), protected from radiation (Faraday cage), or prevent hackers and governments from spying on you (leave the phone at home or disable cameras/microphones inside the device). But this kind of phone sleeve is by far the easiest way to enjoy the benefits of a smartphone and be protected against the downsides.

Pre-order the TOCA phone sleeve online (for 40-50 EUR), and keep an eye out for their new products; I already have my mind set on a laptop sleeve. And if you want to be sure you’re not tracked when you take the phone out of the sleeve to make a call, check out the  up-coming phone case by Snowden.


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