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The Problem with Mobile Phones
All Rights Reserved. As of , smartphone manufacturers have started to recognize that this kind of tracking is problematic, but it may not be fixed in every device for years—if ever. In comparison to GSM monitoring, these forms of tracking are not necessarily as useful for government surveillance. This is because they work best at short distances and require prior knowledge or observation to determine what MAC address is built into a particular person's device. However, these forms of tracking can be a highly accurate way to tell when a person enters and leaves a building.
Turning off Wi-Fi and Bluetooth on a smartphone can prevent this type of tracking, although this can be inconvenient for users who want to use these technologies frequently. Wi-Fi network operators can also see the MAC address of every device that joins their network, which means that they can recognize particular devices over time, and tell whether you are the same person who joined the network in the past even if you don't type your name or e-mail address anywhere or sign in to any services.
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On a few devices, it is physically possible to change the MAC address so that other people can't recognize your Wi-Fi device as easily over time; on these devices, with the right software and configuration, it would be possible to choose a new and different MAC address every day, for example.
On smartphones, this commonly requires special software such as a MAC address-changing app. Currently, this option is not available for the majority of smartphone models. Apps can ask the phone for this location information and use it to provide services that are based on location, such as maps that show you your position on the map.
Some of these apps will then transmit your location over the network to a service provider, which, in turn, provides a way for other people to track you.
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The app developers might not have been motivated by the desire to track users, but they might still end up with the ability to do that, and they might end up revealing location information about their users to governments or hackers. Some smartphones will give you some kind of control over whether apps can find out your physical location; a good privacy practice is to try to restrict which apps can see this information, and at a minimum to make sure that your location is only shared with apps that you trust and that have a good reason to know where you are.
In each case, location tracking is not only about finding where someone is right now, like in an exciting movie chase scene where agents are pursuing someone through the streets. It can also be about answering questions about people's historical activities and also about their beliefs, participation in events, and personal relationships. For example, location tracking could be used to try to find out whether certain people are in a romantic relationship, to find out who attended a particular meeting or who was at a particular protest, or to try and identify a journalist's confidential source.
A tool called CO-TRAVELER uses this data to find relationships between different people's movements to figure out which people's devices seem to be traveling together, as well as whether one person appears to be following another. There's a widespread concern that phones can be used to monitor people even when not actively being used to make a call. As a result, people having a sensitive conversation are sometimes told to turn their phones off entirely, or even to remove the batteries from their phones.
The recommendation to remove the battery seems to be focused mainly on the existence of malware that makes the phone appear to turn off upon request finally showing only a blank screen , while really remaining powered on and able to monitor conversations or invisibly place or receive a call. 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. 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. 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.
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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. 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.
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.