Saheli*: Musings and Observations
Saturday, March 11, 2006
 
Your own personal bug?
by Colin


While driving home yesterday through the awful Washington traffic, I found myself swearing up a storm at a maniac driver ahead of me swerving lanes without signaling. After he had zoomed off I realized it was a good thing nobody could hear me inside my car, because I would have been embarassed by what I had said. But then I glanced over to what was sitting on the seat next to me, and suddenly I wasn't so sure.

Take out your cell phone and put it down in front of you. (Yes, you have one.) It looks inert -- no ringing, flashing, or anything like that -- and since you're not making a call, it's not transmitting or receiving, right? Don't be so sure. In order to receive incoming calls, your phone is constantly listening to the control frequencies of your cellular network. When it gets a call, it rings to get your attention, and then switches on the speaker and microphone when you flip open the phone or push the answer button. But it seems to me that it would be nothing more than a software tweak on the part of the cell company to instruct your phone that upon receipt of a special control signal, it should (a) not ring, (b) switch on the microphone only, and (c) transmit anything the mike picks up. Voila -- instant bug.

Would this work? In running this by Scotto he objected that if the phone is in your pocket the mike couldn't pick up anything you say. While we were talking by cell phone, he put his phone in his pocket inside his shirt and sweater, and kept talking. He was perfectly audible, if a little quiet. Would this be the case for a phone in a jeans pocket? Clipped to a belt? Inside a purse or backpack? I don't know, but obviously it's not impossible for some carrying positions. Scotto also raised the objection that for clamshell phones the mike may be blocked when in the closed position. Unfortunately, we can't test this, but in looking at my phone I'm not convinced.

A further technical objection to this scenario is that you would know if your phone were being used to eavesdrop on you when it was ostensibly not connected, because if you ever tried to place a call there would be a lag or delay, or the phone in some other way would behave oddly. But my phone behaves oddly all the time. I frequently try to place a call and wait for 60 seconds for it to ring, then give up and redial. If the reprogramming were done well, the phone display would not change during the eavesdropping, and in no other way would it be detectable in the normal course of use.

If someone subject to this kind of non-calling wireless eavesdropping were to monitor their phone battery life or even -- for the truly technically sophisticated -- the actual RF signals emitted by their phone antenna, they might notice something amiss. But ask yourself how many people would either think to do this or be able to.

Why would cell companies want to eavesdrop on their customers? Couldn't they just wait for them to place a call and listen in on them in the regular way? Imagine the following scenario: the FBI/DHS/whoever is tracking a mobster/terrorist/bank robber and wants to listen in on an important meeting. The suspect is paranoid about electronic eavesdropping, so he conducts meetings in person. But he carries a cell phone, and has it clipped to his belt everywhere he goes. One night he meets with an accomplice in the back room of a restaurant that has been screened for bugs and has no windows. The Feds are locked out of the conversation, until they place a call to Verizon with a special request: remotely turn on the mike in cell phone number X, without ringing or changing the display, and let us know what you hear.

In sniffing around the web for traces of this idea I've come up completely empty. I can't be the first person to have thought of this, and I was expecting to find page after page explaining either why it's technically impossible and will never happen, or how it's already happening all the time. But there's nothing. Can anybody help me on this one? Tell me why this idea is crazy, or otherwise why it's already old news?

There is a related issue to all this about the transmission of location information to the cell phone company, as part of the E911wireless emergency services program. This is not the same issue, although it's interesting. Declan McCullagh has an older article on cell phone tracking as part of the E911 program. In the UK, it's well established.
 


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Saheli Datta started this when she was a journalism student at Columbia in New York. Now she lives in the Bay Area. *Old people call me R. New people, call me Saheli. Thanks! My homepage. Specifically, my links. Email me: Saheli [AT] Gmail [dot] Com

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Blogs I Read (Or Try To)
113th Street
american footprints(Nadezhda & Praktike)
ANNA's Diary
Apartment Therapy
Armchair Generalist
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Dave Barry
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Dark Days Ahead
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Forsv
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Geomblog
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Heliolith
Alexandra Huddleston
Iddybud (Jude Nagurney Camwell)
Indeterminacy
India Uncut
InSpiteOfEverything
Intel Dump: Phillip Carter et al
The Intersection (Chris Mooney)
Jesus Politics
John and Belle Have a Blog
Mark A. R. Kleiman
KnowProse (Taran Rampersad)
1Locana
Maenad (Nori Heikkinen)
Scott McCloud
Mind Without Borders
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Corey Pein
Political Animal(Kevin Drum, formerly Calpundit)
Kevin G. Powell
QuakeHelp (South Asian Quake)
Radiation Persuasion (Nick)
Reneebop
Rhinocrisy
Scott Rosenberg(Salon.com)
Rox Populi
Felix(&Rhian)Salmon
samVaad
Nick Schager
Idea Spout: Daniel Sanchez
Sepia Mutiny
Amardeep Singh
Snarkmarket (Robin Sloan & Matt Thompson)
South-East Asian Earthquake and Tsunami Blog
SreeTips: New To Sree
Steprous (Bear)
Robert Stribley
Subjunctive.net:klog
Talking Points Memo: Joshua Micah Marshall
Tech Policy
TiffinBox
A Tiny Revolution
To The Teeth
TreeHugger
Unfogged
VatulBlog
Venk@
Manish Vij
Vinod's Blog
War and Piece
Nollind Whachell
Wonkette
WorldChanging
Matthew Yglesias:Old
Yglesias:Tpmcafe
Zoo Station:Reuben Abraham
Ethan Zuckerman
Zwichenzug



Some Categories

Blogs focusing on policy, politics, and national security:
Armchair Generalist
Back To Iraq 3.0 (Chris Albritton)
The Decembrist
Brad DeLong
Daniel Drezner
Eschaton(Atrios)
Green Ink!
Iddybud (Jude Nagurney Camwell)
Idea Spout: Daniel Sanchez
Informed Comment: Juan Cole
Intel Dump: Phillip Carter
The Intersection (Chris Mooney)
Irregular Analyses
Jesus Politics
Mark A. R. Kleiman
Liberals Against Terrorism(Nadezhda & Praktike)
Political Animal(Kevin Drum, formerly Calpundit)
Talking Points Memo: Joshua Micah Marshall
War and Piece
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Yglesias:Tpmcafe

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TiffinBox

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Apartment Therapy
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Ranajit Dam
Cyrus Farivar
Alexandra Huddleston
InSpiteOfEverything
Corey Pein
Nick Schager
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