Every Cellphone a Walking Bug?

In what may not be tinfoil, Mark Odell reports in the Financial Times, a reliable newspaper, that in the UK at least, governments can turn cellphones into spy microphones,

If ordered to do so, mobile telephone operators can also tap any calls, but more significantly they can also remotely install a piece of software on to any handset, without the owner's knowledge, which will activate the microphone even when its owner is not making a call, giving security services the perfect bugging device. “We have inadvertently started carrying our own trackable ID card in the form of the mobile phone,” said Sandra Bell, head of the homeland security department at the Royal United Services Institute.

The source is “LONDON BOMB ATTACKS: Use of mobile helped police keep tabs on suspect and brother” (sub. req.) published Aug. 2, 2005. It is available on Westlaw (Westlaw acct. req.).

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20 Responses to Every Cellphone a Walking Bug?

  1. Ugh says:

    Wow, combine that with GPS tracking of the phone’s location and it’s like we’re living in the past, about 21 years ago to be exact.

  2. fiat lux says:

    Wouldn’t using the “power off” button preclude this?

  3. Paul Gowder says:

    The “power off” button on many of these modern phones isn’t so user-friendly. For example, the blackberry I have, you press the power off button, it doesn’t turn off, it just sorta turns off the screen. You have to hold the button to turn it off completely. If this is documented, it’s not clear, I found it out by trial and error.

    This actually seems like a very real threat, and I’m no tinfoiler.

  4. mac says:

    Question: if you knew for a certainty that in a given instance a few hundred lives could be saved via phone surveillance, would you still feel it was invasive? Call me naive – but I’m at a loss to understand why people feel compromised. If you’re not a terrorist or a criminal why worry. If you are into phone sex, shady deals or other questionable activities, yes okay, I can see why this might induce paranoia. On the whole though I think any incursions on our personal liberties this involves are well worth it if it permits the Feds to sharpen their focus and possibly prevent mass murder. Call me a rube 🙂

  5. Paul Gowder says:

    Mac: part of the problem is that there’s no real check on these powers, especially with the FISA court and such.

    Talk about questionable activities for example: I practice civil rights law. My job substantially involves taking adverse positions on questions to the federal government, sometimes on issues they’ve misidentified as “terrorist” related (i.e. falsely accused people, people who are discriminated against based on muslim identity), including the department of justice, homeland security, etc.

    What if they tapped my cellphone while a client on one of those cases was meeting me?

  6. mac says:

    Point taken Paul.

    Given the extreme nature of this threat though, don’t you think that prevention has to be the first priority. It would be a pain I realize if your client was targeted incorrectly, but these things usually get sorted out in the wash, and it may even give you some career boosting CNN exposure 🙂

    I do agree it’s a tricky one … but my tendency is to bite my lip and cut some slack given the extraordinary threats we are presently facing as a society; an unusual position for me because as a libertarian I would normally be protesting loudly against any and all untoward invasions of privacy.

  7. michael says:

    You know, that whole Bill of Rights thing is just so passé.

  8. mac says:

    The Patriot Act has polarized opinion across the board. It’s viewed by detractors as quasi-fascist legislation and by supporters as a noble attempt to maintain unity and security in the face of a gathering threat. I have difficulty with both extremes. With respect to this chat about phone vulnerabilites, I think it’s important to keep the following in mind …

    “The biggest misconception is that the PATRIOT Act is some monolithic code, carefully constructed. That’s not true,” said William C. Banks, law professor at Syracuse University and one of the nation’s top experts on national security law. “It is a series of amendments to existing laws that add authority. It doesn’t have a theme. It doesn’t have a narrative. It’s a mishmash.”

    In the case of special security measures – as in the instance of phone surveillance – loss of personal “rights” has to be balanced against extraordinary measures taken to protect the public good. I don’t see this measure as unduly draconian or extreme. If it results in abuses, then the government needs to be held accountable. We’re heading into unchartered territory here with a lot of these provisions, and while I support preventitive measures against terrorism, I’m reserving a final judgement on Fed use or abuse of these special powers. It’s still early days.

  9. I actually program phones for some applications. And the answer is, yep you can do that, but only on some phones. Obviously it won’t work if you pop the battery out, but it may work if you just hit the power button because on some phones all the buttons are just software commands sent to the central control program.

    If you are excessively paranoid, just take out the battery. Since I carry mine in my pocket, all they’ll hear is the grinding of distressingly over-stressed fabric. And it’s a clam shell phone, so they would have to get sound waves into the mic through the case of the phone. Good luck with that

  10. BroD says:

    “I’m at a loss to understand why people feel compromised. If you’re not a terrorist or a criminal why worry.”

    Get real, Mac! You assume this ability will be used only for legitimate law enforcement purposes. Have you noticed that the Bush administration has organized the torture and murder of prisoners of war and ‘outed’ a CIA operative for political purposes?

    I was on the Nixon ‘enemies list’ and surely am on the Bush enemies list if they have one.

    I don’t have a cell phone and won’t be getting one soon.

  11. mac says:

    BroD , I’m not naive enough to assume that the admin is blameless in such matters, so I don’t doubt the veracity of what you say. But here’s the thing – politics is dirty and if it was a Howard Dean or Hillary calling the shots I’m pretty sure damage would be dished under the table also. It’s the nature of that particular game. The standards Reds and Blues hold each other to are routinely undercut by BOTH. That’s the reason the history of U.S. politics is virtually predicated on scandal.

    I simply don’t buy into the view that this war has been “manufactured” and that Bush’s Iraq adventures (misadventures?) have resulted in the need for ongoing “myth making” on the part of the Feds. This is a very real and a very profound threat. This war is not simply a product of Muslim reaction to the Iraq war, allied troops in the Middle East, the issue of oil and U.S. support of Israel – despite Al Qaeda’s artful attempts to make their reponse seem to be the honorable reaction of the wounded party.

    The root cause of this conflict go much, much deeper and relates in a highly visceral fashion to issues morality and social values. When I was at University I was frequently surprised by the arguments fronted by Islamic students to justify radical positions. Yes of course there was the standard Israel and western imperialist rhetoric, but on a deeper, more personal level, there was a profound sense of outrage with respect to western secular values … pop culture, pornography, the role of women etc. We have long been headed for a clash because the values of this resurgent Islamic culture are totally inimical to the free wheeling secular values we have thrashed out over decades of struggle. In essence, this truly is a class of civilizations. Those who point to “progressive” Islamic thinkers such as the Mufti of Marseilles, Soheib Bencheikh, or Irshad Manji – and the remarkable Canadian Muslim woman who’s frontal attacks on patriarchal Islam have affronted many (not least because she is an openly declared lesbian) – fail to see that the Islamic zeitgeist in this age is not headed in that progressive direction. It’s a moral and traditional force and it has slammed head first into the democratic values we hold so dear.

    This conflict is inevitable. Of course the Middle Eastern military and political conflicts add fuel to the fire, but to buy the claims of Wahhabist idealogues that they are simply reacting to western aggression, is too easy. There is an aggrandizing and expansionist force written into their brand of Islam, and it will never be reconciled with western values – period. The clash was bound to come because irrespective of military incursions, western values have been working their way into Gulf region for decades. The momentum for conflict has been building, if only on the cultural/political front.

    So, we do have a problem – a large one – that is very real. Our citizens are at grave risk, not only from conventional terror attacks, but via vulnerabilities in our port organization that could potentially become a pathway for a nuclear threat to one of our cities. CNN hosted a brilliant documentary on this very threat. Put simply, we have no choice but to move to a more stringent security arrangement. Yes, it will impact on personal freedoms. Yes, Bush and co will likely use it for various political advantages. I don’t think we should go there blindly. I think we have to fight abuse of power by the Feds and remain vigilant. But we are into a very different game now globally, and we can’t try to continue applying the old rules.

  12. mac says:

    I inadvertently made it sound as though Irshad Manji and the “remarkable Canadian muslim women” are different people – they are of course one and the same.

  13. Anne says:

    “… loss of personal “rights” has to be balanced against extraordinary measures taken to protect the public good.”

    I think it’s telling that you’ve placed rights in quotation marks. There should be no compromise on personal rights, no matter how you think this will help several hundred others. You cannot bend on some rights, otherwise it is all too easy to have other rights fall to the wayside as well.

    I am not about to give up any of my rights, not a single one, in the false notion that it will save others.

    “If it results in abuses, then the government needs to be held accountable.”

    Yes, because the gov’t has always been held accountable in the past.

    In regards to your earlier comment, “If you’re not a terrorist or a criminal why worry.” This is complete bullshit. It’s not about whether or not someone is a terrorist. It’s about whether or not someone is to be protected under the Constitution and Bill of Rights. It’s ignorant to think that just because you’re not a terrorist you have to give up your rights and allow the gov’t full access to your life, because maybe it will help the gov’t catch more “terrorists”. Who defines ‘terrorist’ in the first place? Who’s to say they won’t redefine the term, as has already happened, to include a wide-range of folks?

    When dealing with a national/federal gov’t, you simply cannot give them any leeway, otherwise they’ll run with it like crazy.

    “He who is willing to give up freedom for safety deserves neither freedom nor safety.” — Benjamin Franklin

  14. mac says:

    Anne – Often these debates become obtuse because the legal situation overall is complex with many variables.

    If we were to take your rights concerns and place them in a simpler black and white context by way of analogy, I would be interested to hear where you stand.

    Suppose for example, you lived in a small village and you long exercised the right to walk in the nearby forest to harvest wild berries – exercised the right to swim in a local lake on your own. You get the picture. Suppose an enemy began to launch lethal ambushes on innocent villagers involved in these leisure activities. The elders enact a law that prevents you and others from walking alone in the forest and swimming in the lake – as a security measure. Would you consider this to be an outrageous proposition?

    Just curious.

  15. BroD says:

    Jesus, Mac! I can agree with some of what you say but think you significantly overstate the real threat from the Wahhabist idealogues–even considering the fact that the Bush administration has strengthened their appeal in the Islamic world.

    I live in a port city and yes, I do worry about our vulnerability–the Bush administration has been characteristically incompetent in securing our ports. But I worry just as much about giving this administration free rein to spy on its citizens in under the guise of national security.

    As you may have noticed, this administration and its henchmen have been quick to paint opponents as anti-american and have demonstrated sneering contempt for constitutional and legal protections.

    And be careful not to trivialize ‘politics. Keep in mind that, beyond the spin and gamesmanship, our political system is a sacred inheritance, based on the constitutional rights of speech and assembly. We must defend these as steadfastly–even more steadfastly–as we protect our security.

    You asked “why worry?” That’s why.

    point is you can’t trust the feds–especially under this administration–to restrict their use of

  16. Anne says:

    I don’t believe an issue such as we’re discussing can be so easily broken down. It isn’t simple, but complex. But I’ll bite.

    I would view it as an outrageous measure. I believe the correct response would be to fight back, to defend your right to walk in a forest, to swim in a river.

    This isn’t a hypothetical, either. Many environmental/activists fight daily to defend our forests from being hacked to shit by timber/logging corporations, and fight against the damming and polluting of rivers by corporations.

    But this isn’t a discussion about landbases.

  17. mac says:

    A couple of points before I anbandon the thread, and allow others to weigh in.

    Rest assured BroD I don’t trivialize politics and I do think your concerns are valid ones. We seem to be coming at it from different perspectives.

    Anne, you can’t fight people who attack by stealth, as the marines are discovering in Iraq. Caution and planning can reduce casualities though. The analogy I grant was imperfect, but the principle I believe fundamentally the same – in both instances I see such measures as being purely emergency related and any effort by the powers to put personal liberties in the can on an ongoing basis would be fought by me also.

    Have a good one – off to swim in the lake:)

  18. kim says:

    This was also discussed in an article in Business Week over the past few days regarding bugging at the UN.

  19. aidan maconachy says:

    A while back I did some posting under the email address aidan_maconachy@hotmail.com.

    This email address was hijacked without my knowledge (I haven’t used it for some time) and has been used on-line in an inappropriate fashion. It’s my understanding that the account in question has now been finally closed at my request by hotmail people, however if anyone encounters a post in this name (or has encountered a post in the past) with the above email associated with it, would you please alert me at aidanmaconachy18@hotmail.com. Thanks.

  20. paul says:

    The dangers of starting up a universal government-based surveillance system should be obvious. But that’s not nearly as bad as it gets. Industrial-scale spam and identity theft operations have made it clear that the black-hat folks are much better at using these kinds of infrastructure than the nominally white-hat types. So shortly after (or maybe before) the local Homeland Security office is in a position to use your cell phone as a bugging device, so will be your local racketeers and drug wholesalers, half the 419 scammers in Nigeria, and anyone who hates you enough to hire a 17-year-old kid to run some bugging script downloaded from the usual suspects. (Where “you” might be you the general public, might be one of the millions of law-enforcement or other government officials or their spouses, children or friends who don’t carry a secure cell phone.)

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