NSA Can Reportedly Track Phones Even When They're Turned Off

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
July 22 2013 4:06 PM

NSA Can Reportedly Track Phones Even When They're Turned Off

170225348
A woman checks her mobile phone in Vienna.

Photo by ALEXANDER KLEIN/AFP/Getty Images

The NSA has a diverse range of surveillance capabilities—from monitoring Google Maps use to sifting through millions of phone call records and spying on Web searches. But it doesn’t end there. The agency can also track down the location of a cellphone even if the handset is turned off, according to a new report.

On Monday, the Washington Post published a story focusing on how massively the NSA has grown since the 9/11 attacks. Buried within it, there was a small but striking detail: By September 2004, the NSA had developed a technique that was dubbed “The Find” by special operations officers. The technique, the Post reports, was used in Iraq and “enabled the agency to find cellphones even when they were turned off.” This helped identify “thousands of new targets, including members of a burgeoning al-Qaeda-sponsored insurgency in Iraq,” according to members of the special operations unit interviewed by the Post.

Advertisement

It is not explained in the report exactly how this technique worked. But to spy on phones when they are turned off, agencies would usually have to infect the handset with a Trojan that would force it to continue emitting a signal if the phone is in standby mode, unless the battery is removed. In most cases, when you turn your phone off—even if you do not remove the battery—it will stop communicating with nearby cell towers and can be traced only to the location it was in when it was powered down.

In 2006, it was reported that the FBI had deployed spyware to infect suspects’ mobile phones and record data even when they were turned off. The NSA may have resorted to a similar method in Iraq, albeit on a much larger scale by infecting thousands of users at one time. Though difficult, the mass targeting of populations with Trojan spyware is possible—and not unheard of. In 2009, for instance, thousands of BlackBerry users in the United Arab Emirates were targeted with spyware that was disguised as a legitimate update. The update drained users’ batteries and was eventually exposed by researchers, who identified that it had apparently been designed by U.S. firm SS8, which sells “lawful interception” tools to help governments conduct surveillance of communications.

In recent weeks, the NSA’s surveillance programs—both domestic and international—have been the subject of intense scrutiny following a series of leaked secret documents. The NSA says that a vast database that it maintains on phone calls made by millions of Americans does not include location data. But the revelation that the agency has developed a technique that apparently enables  it to monitor thousands of cellphones—even when turned off—is likely to only inflame civil liberties groups’ concerns, prompting further questions about the full extent of the agency’s spying efforts.

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

Ryan Gallagher is a journalist who reports on surveillance, security, and civil liberties.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Meet the New Bosses

How the Republicans would run the Senate.

The Government Is Giving Millions of Dollars in Electric-Car Subsidies to the Wrong Drivers

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Cheez-Its. Ritz. Triscuits.

Why all cracker names sound alike.

Friends Was the Last Purely Pleasurable Sitcom

The Eye

This Whimsical Driverless Car Imagines Transportation in 2059

Medical Examiner

Did America Get Fat by Drinking Diet Soda?  

A high-profile study points the finger at artificial sweeteners.

The Afghan Town With a Legitimately Good Tourism Pitch

A Futurama Writer on How the Vietnam War Shaped the Series

  News & Politics
Photography
Sept. 21 2014 11:34 PM People’s Climate March in Photos Hundreds of thousands of marchers took to the streets of NYC in the largest climate rally in history.
  Business
Business Insider
Sept. 20 2014 6:30 AM The Man Making Bill Gates Richer
  Life
Quora
Sept. 20 2014 7:27 AM How Do Plants Grow Aboard the International Space Station?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Sept. 21 2014 1:15 PM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 5  A spoiler-filled discussion of "Time Heist."
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 21 2014 2:00 PM Colin Farrell Will Star in True Detective’s Second Season
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 6:31 PM The One Big Problem With the Enormous New iPhone
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 22 2014 5:30 AM MAVEN Arrives at Mars
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.