Privacy & Security

Your Smartphone is Spying on You (Again)

It’s no surprise that Big Brother takes an intense interest in how we interact with our mobile devices.

Think about your smartphone for a moment. You probably carry it everywhere you go, and likely have dozens of apps installed that in many cases contain sensitive personal information. You presumably use it for phone calls, text messages, and, of course, to find the nearest Starbucks. When it’s time to pay bills, a smartphone makes it easy. Just log in to your bank’s mobile app.

But never forget that a smartphone is a device tailor-made for surveillance. Simply powering it on exposes your location. Anyone who has access to the cellphone network can track your location in real time, as well as the records of where you’ve been.

Your smartphone mobile carrier has the built-in capacity to monitor everything you do with your smartphone: what websites you visit, what apps you install, who you called or has called you, who you texted or texted you, etc. It also can keep a permanent record of this activity. What’s more, it’s almost child’s play to plant spyware on a smartphone. Detecting such software is impossible unless you’re an expert.

Your smartphone also contains a camera and a microphone. Many apps containing spyware can secretly activate them, converting your smartphone into a wiretapping device.  

Governments also use surveillance technology originally developed for the military that masquerades as a cell tower, thus fooling your smartphone into connecting to it. The generic term for this type of surveillance is “IMSI Catcher,” referring to the fact that the devices employing it identify your phone’s international mobile subscriber identification (IMSI) number. One class of devices using this technology is called “Stingray.” A more advanced version is called “Dirtbox.”

The reaction by governments to the COVID-19 pandemic has further escalated the threat of smartphone surveillance. Hundreds of millions of people across the world can’t travel or even leave their home unless they install a tracking app on their smartphone. At least 47 smartphone-based contact tracing apps in 28 countries use mobile data tracking to record your interactions with other people to assess your risk of exposure to COVID-19. China, South Korea, Taiwan and Israel use human contact tracers who have access to CCTV video streams and mobile phone location data to enforce quarantines.

Then there’s TikTok, a video-sharing social networking app that’s uber-popular with teenagers. In August, President Trump signed an executive order that would remove TikTok from US app stores because it poses a security risk. (TikTok’s corporate parent is a Chinese company.) TikTok admits that it collects usage information, IP addresses, the identity of your cellular company, your keystroke patterns, and your location data, among other information.

But the fact is, every other app on your cellphone probably does the same thing. If TikTok is a security risk to the average American user, so is Google, Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, and Snapchat. I suspect the real reason for the ban (temporarily delayed by a recent court order) is that TikTok isn’t controlled by US security agencies.

That may sound paranoid or simply crass, except that there’s a long history of Uncle Sam spying on our electronic communications. In 2013, whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed that that the Pentagon’s ultra-secretive National Security Agency taps directly into the server hubs of leading internet companies, extracting audio and video chats, photographs, e-mails, documents, and connection logs. Companies mentioned in the documents include Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube, and Apple. The NSA has essentially placed a drift net across the electronic spectrum to capture everything transmitted over it.

Nor have more recent developments indicated that Big Brother has changed its behavior. Last year, The Washington Post revealed that the FBI issued “national security letters” (NSLs) to more than 120 companies. They included a cross-section of corporate giants entrusted with our most sensitive data, including financial services giants Bank of America and Capital One; cellular service providers AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon; credit bureaus Equifax, Experian and TransUnion; and technology companies Google, Microsoft and Facebook.

The NSL mechanism, which was greatly expanded by the USA PATRIOT Act,  permits the FBI to force companies to disclose customer information without a search warrant. The FBI can obtain telephone logs, e-mail histories, financial and bank records, and credit reports this way. It may retain the records indefinitely, even when they prove irrelevant to an investigation. The records may also be shared broadly, facilitating the creation of electronic dossiers on tens of thousands of Americans.

The FBI may also prohibit the recipient of an NSL from disclosing its existence "to any person" other than the recipient's lawyer, with five years’ imprisonment as the prescribed punishment.

Oh, and by the way … just a few months ago, in a rare example of bipartisanship, Congress voted to renew the USA Freedom Act, which extends the PATRIOT Act’s expansive domestic surveillance authority. 

You might be tempted to conclude that the furor over smartphone spying is much ado about nothing. After all, what harm can it do if you’re not doing anything wrong?

The problem is that the concept of “right” and “wrong” can be redefined anytime. For instance, while the First Amendment gives Americans “freedom of speech,” exercising that right while having your smartphone with you means you’ll be monitored. You may not have noticed, but eyes in the sky were watching when demonstrators marched in American cities to protest the killing of George Floyd.

In Houston, Las Vegas, Portland, Washington, D.C., and other metropolitan areas, police and National Guard units employed extensive use of surveillance aircraft to monitor conditions on the streets. And they used an advanced version of the Dirtbox IMSI catcher to track a smartphone’s physical location as well as monitor conversations, emails, and text messages. Naturally, all this surveillance occurred without any type of search warrant.

If you’d rather not be subjected to this type of surveillance, there’s a simple, albeit drastic solution to end it. That’s to throw away your smartphone. Replace it with a burner phone – a cheap mobile phone you can buy with cash and purchase prepaid voice and internet service. Follow this link to learn where to buy one or set one up.

A good time to begin securing your smartphone would be today. Big Brother certainly isn’t going to do it for you.

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