Is That a Razr in Your Pocket, or is the FBI Glad to See Me?

Be afraid.

FBI taps cell phone mic as eavesdropping tool. 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.

The surveillance technique came to light in an opinion published this week by U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan. He ruled that the “roving bug” was legal because federal wiretapping law is broad enough to permit eavesdropping even of conversations that take place near a suspect’s cell phone.

Kaplan’s opinion said that the eavesdropping technique “functioned whether the phone was powered on or off.” Some handsets can’t be fully powered down without removing the battery; for instance, some Nokia models will wake up when turned off if an alarm is set.

It seems the bugging software can downloaded remotely, without the cops ever touching the phone. And once the handset’s software is compromised, even pushing the “off” button won’t stop it from acting as a bug.

The U.S. Commerce Department’s security office warns that “a cellular telephone can be turned into a microphone and transmitter for the purpose of listening to conversations in the vicinity of the phone.” An article in the Financial Times last year said mobile providers can “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.”

Nextel and Samsung handsets and the Motorola Razr are especially vulnerable to software downloads that activate their microphones, said James Atkinson, a counter-surveillance consultant who has worked closely with government agencies. “They can be remotely accessed and made to transmit room audio all the time,” he said. “You can do that without having physical access to the phone.”

J. Edgar would have loved this one.

I wonder what the effects are on battery life, however: If my battery suddenly seems to die on me more quickly is that a sign I need a new one, or that I’m being bugged?

Memo to all lawyers: take the battery out of your cell phone when having sensitive conversations.

This entry was posted in Law: Criminal Law, Law: Privacy. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Is That a Razr in Your Pocket, or is the FBI Glad to See Me?

  1. Ann Bartow says:

    Very scary, and yet your post title gave me quite a good laugh.

  2. Cathy says:

    > Memo to all lawyers: take the battery out of your cell phone when having sensitive conversations.

    That’s not going to work so well if your phone is also your PDA.

    (A better possibility might be to somehow cap the physical mike to make the sound quality undistinguishable. And/or run some sort of app that creates a field of white noise from the speaker that can drown out the sound being picked up by the mike.)

  3. Steve says:

    Here’s security and privacy expert Lauren Weinstein’s take on the subject.

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