Tech + Health

09.01.13

The OFF Pocket Is a Pouch That Takes Your Phone Off the Grid

What happens when haute couture meets counter-surveillance? The OFF Pocket, a sleek pouch that deflects phone tracking—and phone calls. By Josh Dzieza.

Haute couture usually makes you stand out, but Adam Harvey and Johanna Bloomfield imagine a future where it can help you hide.

The newest item designed by Harvey, an artist with a background in mechanical engineering, and Bloomfield, a fashion designer, is called OFF Pocket, a metallic-fiber pouch designed to block all wireless signals to your phone. Bloomfield calls it a “privacy accessory.” For the next month, it will sit alongside other examples of counter surveillance chic from Harvey’s company, PRVCM, in a “privacy gift shop” at New York’s New Museum

Harvey and Bloomfield’s first collaborative project, Stealth Wear, a line of futuristic looking streetwear that shields the wearer from thermal imaging cameras, debuted this January at the fashion boutique Primitive London. Stealth Wear was more of a “provocation” than a consumer fashion line, Harvey says, designed to make people aware of how invasive thermal imaging could be, and the sort of counter-measures that would be required to block it.

And provoke it did. It's received extensive coverage since its debut, including a very positive report in Army Times. “They used our sexiest photo from the lookbook,” says Harvey. Recently, he was approached by a U.S. official--Harvey wouldn’t say what agency the official represented--who wanted to use photos of Harvey’s work in a classified document; the official wouldn’t say what the document was about. “That was the impetus behind this installation,” says Harvey. “I want the work I’m doing to be as accessible as possible, so I thought, what better way to do it than to make a gift shop.”

OFF Pocket is their most mainstream product so far. At $100, it’s more affordable than the $450 scarf on display at the gift shop (rainbow colored on one side, in the pallet of a thermal image, and heat-signature-masking metallic nylon on the other). Nor is it so unusual looking that it would make you stand out on the street while hiding you from surveillance. “We really envision the OFF Pocket as one of the most commercially available products,” says Bloomfield, imagining future collaborations with stores and artists, like the limited edition silver OFF Pocket on sale at the New Museum.

Harvey and Bloomfield hope the Off Pocket’s appeal will go beyond people thinking about leaking classified documents.

Harvey’s first prototype was sewn into his pants--hence the “pocket” in OFF Pocket. He was concerned about the lack of control we have over our phones. “You have to agree to the way you use [your smart phone] when you agree to terms of service, and it’s very unclear about how much information is being tracked and recorded about you, though it’s clear information is being tracked and recorded wherever you go, whenever your phone is on.”

With lengthy powering off cycles, people are reluctant to turn off their phones, Harvey says, and even if they wanted to, it’s becoming harder to do. In order to cut down on boot-up time, developers are designing phones that keep some of their electronics active even when powered down, a semi-active state that can be exploited for surveillance.

Last month, the Washington Post reported that the NSA can track phones even when they’re turned off, possibly by installing malware that makes the phone keep transmitting a signal when it’s in one of these not-completely-powered off states. It’s so hard to tell when your phone is truly off--even removing the battery might not be enough, as some phones have built-in backups--that Edward Snowden asked his guests to put their devices in his hotel refrigerator. (Harvey tested the OFF Pocket against a refrigerator and a martini shaker, which can also be used to block wireless signals in a pinch, and found that it performed far better than either.)

Harvey and Bloomfield hope the Off Pocket’s appeal will go beyond people thinking about leaking classified documents. “There are two aspects to the OFF Pocket,” says Bloomfield. “One is privacy and surveillance and the other is to tune off.” The first person to buy an OFF Pocket was a model at PRVCM’s London debut, who walked up to the podium, grabbed the display version, and handed Harvey 100 pounds. “She said that she just didn’t like to be bothered sometimes,” Harvey says. There are a slew of programs that block the internet for people looking for some distraction-free time, but not much for your phone other than the off-button and willpower. Tech writer Evgeny Morozov locks his in a time-release safe when he works. A signal-blocking case might provide a less drastic respite from buzzes and pings and inbox temptation.

Like Stealth Wear, the Off Pocket received a well-timed boost from the news. When they debuted their thermal-camera-blocking hoodies and scarves, drones were at the forefront of the public imagination, with frequent debates about the technology’s domestic use. Drones, Harvey says, were the proxy we used to talk about privacy. Then, just as Harvey and Bloomfield were finalizing their OFF Pocket Kickstarter fundraiser, Snowden released the first of the NSA documents. “I called Johanna and said, we need to get this up and running right away,” Harvey says. That Kickstarter campaign raised $56,000, exceeding their $35,000 goal. “Public awareness is important,” says Bloomfield, “and phones are in right now.”