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First Look at the OSOM Privacy Cable, Coming Soon!
Update 4.13.2023: Now available for purchase through the Solana Mobile storefront, more retailers coming soon!
It might seem like a small thing to get so worked up over, but the team here at OSOM is excited about the privacy cable the Solana Saga includes. With the flick of a switch you disconnect the USB data lines that connect your phone, giving you full control over when and how connected devices can “talk” to it. I recently got my hands on a pre-production version of the upcoming cable, and given that today is Data Privacy Day, I figured it was a good time to show it off. But we also have an announcement: OSOM will be selling our privacy cable as a separate accessory soon.
At its simplest, this is a cable with a switch and an LED. But that’s a gross oversimplification, given the thought that went into each of those attributes. You might not be aware, but there’s a lot of mechanical wear and tear (if not outright abuse) that your average charging cable is subject to. Think about it: How many worn-out, frayed, or wrinkled USB cables do you have around the house?
Our cable is fabric-sleeved for enhanced durability, capped at either end by aluminum shells, which protect the connector and its joint with the cable. The expected features are all present: flexible strain relief, a length of wire between the two connectors (around five feet or 1.5 meters), capped by USB Type-C connectors. The colorway is monochromatic in black and gray, but other versions might be available down the line. Our privacy cable can plug into pretty much any modern charger, phone, port, laptop, or wall wart, it’s rated to handle up to 60W over USB PD (20V, 3A) at USB 2.0 data speeds.
Ensuring that the cable met our standards for quality and that the design additions didn’t interfere with how you use a cable meant making specific decisions. One of those challenges was ensuring that the throw of the switch didn’t interfere with the plugging or unplugging action; that way you never have to double-check what state the cable is in after connecting it to a device (because that would be really annoying). It’s just the right resistance that you can catch it with a fingernail and flick it either way, but your thumb won’t flip it when you plug it into something, no matter how sloppy or uncoordinated you might be when you do it. It also has a gratifying "click" as it snaps between the two positions, with a red indicator on the slider showing when data is enabled.
Of course, we had to make sure that the cable worked as a cable, and that meant balancing details like a heavy-enough gauge to meet power requirements with high durability and ease of use. The addition of the LED, which flashes when data is being transmitted, isn’t strictly necessary for basic data-disconnecting functionality either, but it serves to inform you when a device might be doing a little more than you expect, plugging you in on the secret life of your phone.
Dave Evans, our Chief Design Officer, balanced a surprising number of details in the cable’s industrial design, from using low-memory wires that are less likely to be kinked — “it’s not a very kinky cable,” is a direct quote I wanted to be sure to include here — to an abrasion- and wear-resistant nylon yarn sleeve, to the anodized aluminum shell that protects the ends. This is a well-engineered and premium product, as much as a cable can be.
I get it, the idea of putting all of this engineering into a charging cable seems a little weird. What outside of the fancy materials separates the OSOM privacy cable from the dime-a-dozen specials you can get anywhere? It comes down to that switch and LED that we built into it.
Juice jacking might sound like a euphemism, but it's a real and growing concern in the privacy and security space. If you aren’t familiar with the concept, it’s something even the FCC is warning people about. We’ve explained it in greater detail in a dedicated juice-jacking explainer, but the short version is that when you plug your phone into a public charging receptacle, you might be getting more than just power from the other end. The cable that connects your phone to a cafe or airport charging port can also be allowing hardware on the other end to try to break into your phone and steal your data — things like photos, messages, accounts, location information, or plenty of other things you’d rather keep to yourself. In the words of OSOM’s Chief Privacy Officer, Mary Ross:
“The OSOM cable allows you to have your cake and eat it too. With the flip of a switch, you can control whether the USB port can transmit data or just charge your device.”
The switch built into the cable physically disconnects the USB data lines, limiting the cable to power-only functionality. While some devices have their own built-in security measures meant to help prevent USB devices from gaining unauthorized access, you’re ultimately trusting the software solution to be free of its own vulnerabilities, and you can’t always rely on that. Our solution adds an extra layer of security with physical, hardware-level protection. When the switch is flipped, you know your phone is only charging.
The LED, which flashes when data is detected as being transmitted, also adds an extra layer of awareness, telling you when a connection might be doing more than you expect (or want). That flicker may not always be a cause for concern — in fact, our head designer found it something of a delight:
“It’s more delightful than we anticipated. Functionality, turning on and off data, might be a bit in the weeds, but it’s nice to have a sense of what’s going on — glancing across the room at it plugged into a computer to see if it’s talking to something behind my back, providing insight into the secret lives of computers via that little LED.”
The LED can then warn you when you might want to flip the switch. If you notice it flickering, but all you want right now is power, you can easily drop the data.
Privacy and convenience
I used to be a reviewer for a tech news site some of you may have read, so my first impetus on fondling this new cable was to document the experience as much as I could. I had assumed that there were going to be drawbacks I’d have to dance around and phrasing that I’d need to avoid when it came to certain features. Simply disconnecting the USB data lines would have to cause other issues, right? Turns out, not really.
Our cable still allows for connected devices to negotiate higher voltage levels for the USB Power Delivery spec (for my fellow nerds: It disconnects the D+/- lines but leaves the CC line used for PD negotiation intact). It may interfere with some proprietary charging standards that use the data lines for other things, but given the ubiquity of the Power Delivery standard, that’s not an issue most people are likely to run into. The short and un-geeky version: The things you connect using this cable should charge “fast.”
You aren’t limited to just using our privacy cable with your phone, either. It can pipe up to 60W of power, which is sufficient to top up a range of devices from most laptops to basically every accessory out there, all while preserving your privacy and security. In my own testing (however objective you might consider that) it worked with everything from a MacBook Pro to competitor’s phones, from over-ear noise-canceling headphones to eReaders, and it even played nice with my much-loved Analogue Pocket.
Sure, it’s “just” a cable with a switch and an LED, but that (patent-pending) combination of features requires exceptional engineering and design know-how to execute at this level of quality. Best of all, the privacy benefits it provides don’t cost any convenience.
Whether you care about your privacy, quality, or you just want a cool flickering LED, we can’t wait to share the cable with you. Keep an eye out for upcoming news on retail availability.