The NSA’s Best Tool for Snooping: You Carry It in Your Pocket Every Day

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
June 7 2013 6:17 PM

The NSA’s Best Tool for Snooping: You Carry It in Your Pocket Every Day

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A government surveillance agent could tap into your phone to track you and listen to your conversations.

Photo by JEAN-SEBASTIEN EVRARD/AFP/Getty Images

The idea that the National Security Agency is tracking Americans’ telephone and Internet activity has been around for years and was illustrated in a Wired cover story last year. But what many of us have suspected or joked about is now a reality, with revelations this week that our data and communications are almost certainly being tracked, with at least some participation by private corporations such as Verizon.

We carry the world’s best surveillance device with us every day. Our cellphones have almost unlimited access to our daily lives—not just because we use them to talk, text, and search the Web, but because it’s really easy to turn on the GPS, microphone, or camera secretly from another location. If you’ve ever lost an iPhone, you may have used Apple’s “Find My iPhone” feature to remotely activate your phone’s GPS signal. Or, like this “very nosy mom” in the Wall Street Journal, it’s possible you’ve used the feature to find out what your kids were up to. If Apple really is working with the NSA as part of PRISM, the technical requirements to locate a person through their phone would be no more difficult than that.

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For spy agencies, it’s no more difficult to activate your phone’s microphone the same way, letting them listen in on your conversations even when you aren’t making a phone call. In 2006 it was revealed that the FBI used this technique, called a “roving bug,” to listen into the lives of two alleged mobsters in New York. According to CNet, a federal judge deemed that technique legal under federal wiretapping law, even though a phone call wasn’t taking place. And while this kind of spying probably wouldn’t be useful en masse, if the data we now know is on file suggests something suspicious, that could be the justification to listen into your life.

There’s no evidence that PRISM is involved in this kind of spying, but there are other known cases where law enforcement has taken advantage of cellphone technology to track people. Something like this happened in the pursuit of the alleged Boston Marathon bombers, when authorities tracked the GPS signal (albeit with the owner’s permission) from a cellphone left behind in the stolen vehicle. A similar FBI tactic was revealed in April in which Verizon allegedly reprogrammed a customer’s air card so it would accept phone calls and allow the FBI to track its location. (The target was Daniel David Rigmaiden, accused of leading a $4 million tax fraud operation.) In both FBI cases, the tactics were revealed through court documents, and we have no way to know how often they are used. This could be happening frequently or not at all—we have no idea!

If PRISM has the cooperation of companies such as Apple, Google, and Verizon, the government’s ability to listen in on any private conversation, whether taking place on a phone call or just in the same room as a mobile phone, would require little technical effort. Company cooperation could lower some legal hurdles, and what we’ve seen this week is that the true legal framework is completely obscured from public view. The White House defended the NSA’s actions by calling them “critical tool[s] in protecting the nation from terrorist threats to the United States.” So if your recent communications look suspicious, the NSA’s discretion might be the only significant barrier to collecting intel directly through your phone.

It’s easy to see how smartphones’ advanced features could be useful in monitoring suspected terrorists and criminals. As we talk about the proper response to the NSA surveillance, we should also respond to what else it could do as cellphone technology becomes increasingly sophisticated, lest those key parts of our lives become yet another critical tool for spying.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Adam Sneed is a researcher for Future Tense at the New America Foundation. Follow him on Twitter at @atsneed.

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