Cell phone surveillance articles

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Thus, users could be tricked into thinking they had successfully turned off their phones when they actually hadn't. Such malware does exist, at least for some devices, though we have little information about how well it works or how widely it has been used. Turning phones off has its own potential disadvantage: if many people at one location all do it at the same time, it's a sign to the mobile carriers that they all thought something merited turning their phones off. An alternative that might give less information away is to leave everybody's phone in another room where the phones' microphones wouldn't be able to overhear the conversations.

Phones that are used temporarily and then discarded are often referred to as burner phones or burners.

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People who are trying to avoid government surveillance sometimes try to change phones and phone numbers frequently to make it more difficult to recognize their communications. They will need to use prepaid phones not associated with a personal credit card or bank account and ensure that the phones and SIM cards were not registered with their identity; in some countries these steps are straightforward, while in others there may be legal or practical obstacles to obtaining anonymous mobile phone service.

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First, merely swapping SIM cards or moving a SIM card from one device to another offers minimal protection, because the mobile network observes both the SIM card and device together. In other words, the network operator knows the history of which SIM cards have been used in which devices, and can track either individually or both together. Second, governments have been developing mobile location analysis techniques where location tracking can be used to generate leads or hypotheses about whether multiple devices actually belong to the same person.

There are many ways this can be done. For example, an analyst could check whether two devices tended to move together, or whether, even if they were in use at different times, they tended to be carried in the same physical locations. A further problem for the successful anonymous use of telephone services is that people's calling patterns tend to be extremely distinctive. For example, you might habitually call your family members and your work colleagues.

Even though each of these people receive calls from a wide range of people, you're likely the only person in the world who commonly calls both of them from the same number. So even if you suddenly changed your number, if you then resumed the same patterns in the calls you made or received, it would be straightforward to determine which new number was yours. Remember that this inference isn't made based only on the fact that you called one particular number, but rather on the uniqueness of the combination of all the numbers that you called.

Indeed, The Intercept reported that a secret U. The document describes the Hemisphere database a massive database of historical call records and how the people who run it have a feature that can link burner phones by following the similarity of their call patterns. The document refers to burner phones as "dropped phones" because their user will "drop" one and start using another one—but the database analytics algorithms can draw the connection between one phone and another when this happens, so long as both were used to make or receive calls to similar sets of phone numbers.

Together, these facts mean that effective use of burner phones to hide from government surveillance requires, at a minimum: not reusing either SIM cards or devices; not carrying different devices together; not creating a physical association between the places where different devices are used; and not calling or being called by the same people when using different devices.

This isn't necessarily a complete list; for example, we haven't considered the risk of physical surveillance of the place where the phone was sold, or the places where it's used, or the possibility of software to recognize a particular person's voice as an automated method for determining who is speaking through a particular phone.

The Global Positioning System GPS lets devices anywhere in the world figure out their own locations quickly and accurately. GPS works based on analyzing signals from satellites that are operated by the U. In fact, the GPS satellites only transmit signals; the satellites don't receive or observe anything from your phone, and the satellites and GPS system operators do not know where any particular user or device is located, or even how many people are using the system.

This is possible because the individual GPS receivers like those inside smartphones calculate their own positions by determining how long it took the radio signals from different satellites to arrive. Usually, this tracking is done by apps running on a smartphone. They ask the phone's operating system for its location determined via GPS. Then the apps are able to transmit this information to someone else over the Internet.

There are also tiny GPS-receiving devices that can be surreptitiously hidden in someone's possessions or attached to a vehicle; those receivers determine their own location and then actively retransmit it over a network, usually the mobile phone network. Mobile phone networks were not originally designed to use technical means to protect subscribers' calls against eavesdropping.

That meant that anybody with the right kind of radio receiver could listen in on the calls. The situation is somewhat better today, but sometimes only slightly. Encryption technologies have been added to mobile communications standards to try to prevent eavesdropping.

How the Government Surveils Cellphones: A Primer

But many of these technologies have been poorly designed sometimes deliberately, due to government pressure not to use strong encryption! They have been unevenly deployed, so they might be available on one carrier but not another, or in one country but not another, and have sometimes been implemented incorrectly. For example, in some countries carriers do not enable encryption at all, or they use obsolete technical standards. This means it is often still possible for someone with the right kind of radio receiver to intercept calls and text messages as they're transmitted over the air.

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Even when the best industry standards are being used—as they are in some countries and on some mobile carriers—there are still people who can listen in. At a minimum, the mobile operators themselves have the ability to intercept and record all of the data about who called or texted whom, when, and what they said. This information might be available to local or foreign governments through official or informal arrangements. In some cases, foreign governments have also hacked mobile operators' systems in order to get secret access to users' data.

Also, IMSI catchers described above can be used by someone physically nearby you. The safest practice is to assume that traditional calls and SMS text messages have not been secured against eavesdropping or recording. Even though the technical details vary significantly from place to place and system to system, the technical protections are often weak and can be bypassed in many situations.

See Communicating with Others to learn how to text and talk more securely. The situation can be different when you are using secure communications apps to communicate whether by voice or text , because these apps can apply encryption to protect your communications. This encryption can be stronger and can provide more meaningful protections. The level of protection that you get from using secure communications apps to communicate depends significantly on which apps you use and how they work.

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One important question is whether a communications app uses end-to-end encryption to protect your communications and whether there's any way for the app developer to undo or bypass the encryption. Phones can get viruses and other kinds of malware malicious software , either because the user was tricked into installing malicious software, or because someone was able to hack into the device using a security flaw in the existing device software.

As with other kinds of computing device, the malicious software can then spy on the device's user. For example, malicious software on a mobile phone could read private data on the device like stored text messages or photos. It could also activate the device's sensors such as microphone, camera, GPS to find where the phone is or to monitor the environment, even turning the phone into a bug.

This technique has been used by some governments to spy on people through their own phones, and has created anxiety about having sensitive conversations when mobile phones are present in the room. Some people respond to this possibility by moving mobile phones into another room when having a sensitive conversation, or by powering them off.

Governments themselves often forbid people, even government employees, from bringing personal cell phones into certain sensitive facilities—mainly based on the concern that the phones could be infected with software to make them record conversations. A further concern is that malicious software could theoretically make a phone pretend to power off, while secretly remaining turned on and showing a black screen, so that the user wrongly believes that the phone is turned off.

This concern has led to some people physically removing the batteries from their devices when having very sensitive conversations. As we discussed above, precautions based on powering off phones could be noticed by a mobile operator; for example, if ten people all travel to the same building and then all switch off their phones at the same time, the mobile operator, or somebody examining its records, might conclude that those people were all at the same meeting and that the participants regarded it as sensitive. This would be harder to detect if the participants had instead left their phones at home or at the office.

There is a well-developed specialty of forensic analysis of mobile devices. An expert analyst will connect a seized device to a special machine, which reads out data stored inside the device, including records of previous activity, phone calls, and text messages. The forensic analysis may be able to recover records that the user couldn't normally see or access, such as deleted text messages, which can be undeleted. There are many smartphone apps and software features that try to inhibit or prevent forensic analysis of certain data and records, or to encrypt data to make it unreadable to an analyst.

In addition, there is remote wipe software, which allows the phone owner or someone designated by the owner to tell the phone to erase certain data on request. This software can be useful to protect against data being obtained if your phone is taken by criminals. However, please note that intentional destruction of evidence or obstruction of an investigation can be charged as a separate crime, often with very serious consequences.

In some cases, this can be easier for the government to prove and allow for more substantial punishments than the alleged crime originally being investigated. Governments have also become interested in analyzing data about many users' phones by computer in order to find certain patterns automatically. These patterns could allow a government analyst to find cases in which people used their phones in an unusual way, such as taking particular privacy precautions.

A few examples of things that a government might try to figure out from data analysis: automatically figuring out whether people know each other; detecting when one person uses multiple phones, or switches phones; detecting when groups of people are traveling together or regularly meeting one another; detecting when groups of people use their phones in unusual or suspicious ways; identifying the confidential sources of a journalist.

Cell Phone Privacy

Skip to main content. DHS officials have told the AP that the agency detected unauthorized Stingray activity during a day sweep that started in January Tracking down the locations of Stingrays would be a time-consuming and expensive undertaking. Law enforcement is also suspected of dragging its feet as many departments and agencies rely on Stingrays to surveil suspects.

They could easily be picked up by illicit eavesdropping devices. This site may earn affiliate commissions from the links on this page.

Can tracking people through phone-call data improve lives?

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