April 6, 2012
If you own a cell phone, you might as well kiss your privacy goodbye. Cell phone companies know more about us than most of us would ever dare to imagine. Your cell phone company is tracking everywhere that you go and it is making a record of everything that you do with your phone. Much worse, there is a good chance that your cell phone company has been selling this information to anyone that is willing to pay the price — including local law enforcement. In addition, it is an open secret that the federal government monitors and records all cell phone calls. The “private conversation” that you are having with a friend today will be kept in federal government databanks for many years to come.
The truth is that by using a cell phone, you willingly make yourself a prisoner of a digital world where every move that you make and every conversation that you have is permanently recorded. But it is not just cell phone companies and government agencies that you have to worry about. As you will see at the end of this article, it is incredibly easy for any would-be stalker to hack you and track your every movement using your cell phone. In fact, many spyware programs allow hackers to listen to you through your cell phone even when your cell phone is turned off. Sadly, most cell phone users have absolutely no idea about any of this stuff.
Your phone company knows where you live, what websites you visit, what apps you download, what videos you like to watch, and even where you are. Now, some have begun selling that valuable information to the highest bidder.
So who is buying this information? We just don’t know. But we do know that local law enforcement agencies all over the country are increasingly using cell phone data to nail suspects, and often it is the cell phone companies that are the ones selling them the cell phone data that they need.
According to a recent New York Times article, many local police departments are doing this without getting a warrant first:
Law enforcement tracking of cellphones, once the province mainly of federal agents, has become a powerful and widely used surveillance tool for local police officials, with hundreds of departments, large and small, often using it aggressively with little or no court oversight.
That same article says that cell phone companies have standard prices that they charge to local law enforcement officials for information that they request:
Cell carriers, staffed with special law enforcement liaison teams, charge police departments from a few hundred dollars for locating a phone to more than $2,200 for a full-scale wiretap of a suspect.
So if you are breaking the law, your cell phone may be used to gather evidence and to track you down. In the United States, cell phone companies are required by law to be able to pinpoint the locations of their customers to within 100 meters.
So if you are a criminal, your cell phone could be leading the police right to you even as you are reading this article.
Sometimes the police don’t even use the cell phone companies. Recently, the Wall Street Journal ran an article that discussed the capabilities of the “stingray devices” that many local law enforcement agencies are using now.
A “stingray device” acts like a cell phone tower and it can gather any information that a normal cell phone tower can. The following is how a recent Wired article described these “stingrays”:
You make a call on your cellphone thinking the only thing standing between you and the recipient of your call is your carrier’s cellphone tower. In fact, that tower your phone is connecting to just might be a boobytrap set up by law enforcement to ensnare your phone signals and maybe even the content of your calls.
So-called stingrays are one of the new high-tech tools that authorities are using to track and identify you. The devices, about the size of a suitcase, spoof a legitimate cellphone tower in order to trick nearby cellphones and other wireless communication devices into connecting to the tower, as they would to a real cellphone tower.
The government maintains that the stingrays don’t violate Fourth Amendment rights, since Americans don’t have a legitimate expectation of privacy for data sent from their mobile phones and other wireless devices to a cell tower.
Isn’t that just great?
The attitude that law enforcement agencies seem to have is that once we use a cell phone we are essentially willingly throwing our Fourth Amendment rights out the window.
In some areas of the United States, police are physically extracting data from cell phones any time they want as well. According to the ACLU, state police in Michigan have been using “extraction devices” to download data from the cell phones of motorists that they pull over. This is taking place even if the motorists that are pulled over are not accused of doing anything wrong. The following is how an article posted on CNET News describes the capabilities of these “extraction devices”:
The devices, sold by a company called Cellebrite, can download text messages, photos, video, and even GPS data from most brands of cell phones. The handheld machines have various interfaces to work with different models and can even bypass security passwords and access some information.
Fortunately these “extraction devices” are being challenged in court. Let us hope that they will be banned.
But what local law enforcement officials are doing pales in comparison to what federal agencies are doing.
For example, the FBI claims that it can demand to see your cell phone data whenever it would like to. Not only that, the FBI has also been remotely activating the microphones on the cell phones of suspects that they want to listen to. This can be done even when the cell phone is turned off:
The FBI appears to have begun using a novel form of electronic surveillance in criminal investigations: remotely activating a mobile phone’s microphone and using it to eavesdrop on nearby conversations.
The technique is called a ‘roving bug,’ and was approved by top U.S. Department of Justice officials for use against members of a New York organized crime family who were wary of conventional surveillance techniques such as tailing a suspect or wiretapping him.
Could the FBI be listening to you right now? If there is a cell phone in the room they could be. But some other federal agencies listen to a lot more cell phone calls than the FBI does.
It has been an open secret for a long time that for national security reasons the federal government monitors and records all cell phone calls that are made.
In fact, the federal government is even trying to collect records for calls that have been made in the distant past. According to USA Today, the goal is “to create a database of every call ever made”:
The National Security Agency has been secretly collecting the phone call records of tens of millions of Americans, using data provided by AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth, people with direct knowledge of the arrangement told USA TODAY.
In addition, the federal government has been constructing the largest data center in the history of the world out in the Utah desert. This data center will be used to house an almost unimaginable amount of digital data (including your cell phone calls). The following is how a recent Wired article described this new facility:
Under construction by contractors with top-secret clearances, the blandly named Utah Data Center is being built for the National Security Agency. A project of immense secrecy, it is the final piece in a complex puzzle assembled over the past decade. Its purpose: to intercept, decipher, analyze, and store vast swaths of the world’s communications as they zap down from satellites and zip through the underground and undersea cables of international, foreign, and domestic networks. The heavily fortified $2 billion center should be up and running in September 2013. Flowing through its servers and routers and stored in near-bottomless databases will be all forms of communication, including the complete contents of private emails, cell phone calls, and Google searches, as well as all sorts of personal data trails—parking receipts, travel itineraries, bookstore purchases, and other digital ‘pocket litter.’
But isn’t it illegal for the federal government to intercept our phone calls?
Well, the cold, hard reality of the matter is that they use all kinds of loopholes and legal technicalities to get around that.
For example, if a call is “intercepted” outside of the United States and then routed to a government building inside the United States that is considered to be okay.
Of course that is a bunch of nonsense, but that is how they think.
And it is very frightening thing for governments around the world to be able to monitor and track us like this.
Increasingly, governments around the world are using cell phones to hunt down people that they do not like and haul them off to prison. For example, a recent Bloomberg article detailed how the Iranian government is aggressively using cell phones to crack down on dissidents:
The Iranian officers who knocked out Saeid Pourheydar’s four front teeth also enlightened the opposition journalist. Held in Evin Prison for weeks following his arrest early last year for protesting, he says, he learned that he was not only fighting the regime, but also companies that armed Tehran with technology to monitor dissidents like him.
Pourheydar, 30, says the power of this enemy became clear as intelligence officers brandished transcripts of his mobile phone calls, e-mails and text messages during his detention. About half the political prisoners he met in jail told him police had tracked their communications and movements through their cell phones, he says.
Christians in Iran have learned that they must take the batteries entirely out of their cell phones before they gather for home church meetings. If they don’t take the batteries out of their cell phones, there is a good chance that the secret police will show up and drag them off to prison.
Most Americans don’t need to worry about getting hauled off to prison for political or religious reasons at this point, but there is another aspect of cell phone security that could potentially affect all of us.
Most Americans are completely unaware of what stalkers can potentially do if they are able to hack into a cell phone. For example, did you know that spyware can make it possible for a stalker to monitor where you are 24 hours a day and listen to everything that you say even when your cell phone is turned off? The following is from an article posted by WTHR:
Spyware marketers claim you can tap into someone’s calls, read their text messages and track their movements ‘anywhere, anytime.’ They say you can ‘catch a cheating spouse’, protect your children from an evil babysitter and ‘hear what your boss is saying about you.’ And while you’re spying on others, the Spyware companies say ‘no one will ever know’ because it’s supposed to be ‘completely invisible’ with ‘absolutely no trace.’Security experts say it’s no internet hoax.
‘It’s real, and it is pretty creepy,’ said Rick Mislan, a former military intelligence officer who now teaches cyber forensics at Purdue University’s Department of Computer and Information Technology.
Mislan has examined thousands of cell phones inside Purdue’s Cyber Forensics Lab, and he says spy software can now make even the most high-tech cell phone vulnerable.
For much more from WTHR about what stalkers can do to your cell phone, just check out this amazing video. It is one of the best news reports that I have ever seen.
Are you starting to see how your cell phone makes you a prisoner of a digital world?
The police can listen to you and track you any time that they want to.
The federal government can listen to you and track you any time that they want to.
Big corporations can buy all of the personal information that cell phones gather any time that they want to from certain cell phone companies.
Stalkers can listen to you and track you 24 hours a day if they are able to hack in to your cell phone somehow.
If you own a cell phone and you still want to have some privacy, then you need to take the battery completely out of the cell phone when you are not using it.
Our world is becoming a much less private place, and we all need to be mindful of the changes that are happening. Unfortunately, as our world becomes even more interconnected and even more dependent on technology, the amount of privacy we all have is likely to continue to decrease. A digital Big Brother control grid is being constructed all around us, and in the future that control grid could potentially be used for very malevolent purposes.
So let us be as wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Our world is changing, and not for the better.