Orwell’s 1984: Who Is Controlling Your Phone Camera, Microphone & GPS?

France granted police the power to remotely access and control cell phone cameras, microphones, and GPS data in July 2023, a move that was compared to an Orwellian dystopia. But the reality is that phone breaches are widespread globally. 

Law enforcement agencies worldwide have varying degrees of access to mobile phones and the biggest surveillance states aren’t always dictatorships, according to a study by Comparitech

“This latest research of 50 countries finds that every police force has some level of access to your mobile phone and its data,” according to Rebecca Moody, head of data research. The majority employ remote phone hacking technologies - even in countries often thought of as privacy advocates like New Zealand, Australia, Germany, and Denmark. The US and UK, meanwhile, are implementing invasive practices that pose threats to privacy.

Phone Surveillance in the US and UK

Even if your cell phone is off, the US government can turn it back on, Edward Snowden told NBC in 2014. Smartphone users are all but powerless to stop security services from getting ‘total control’ over their phones, Snowden added.

It’s been going on for decades. As far back as 2006, the FBI was reportedly tapping cell phone microphones as eavesdropping tools on alleged Mafia figures, activating their cell phone microphone and listening to nearby conversations. The technique is called a ‘roving bug’, Z-Net reported. “And it was approved by top US Department of Justice officials for use against members of a New York organized crime family.”

And it’s not just the FBI or NSA. UK intelligence agency GCHQ can hack phones without the owners' knowledge. GCHQ could access a handset by sending it an encrypted text message and use it to take photos or listen in on conversations, Snowden said. The UK government declined to comment when approached by the BBC.



Orwell’s 1984: Who Is Controlling Your Phone Camera, Microphone & GPS?

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France granted police the power to remotely access and control cell phone cameras, microphones, and GPS data in July 2023, a move that was compared to an Orwellian dystopia. But the reality is that phone breaches are widespread globally. 

Law enforcement agencies worldwide have varying degrees of access to mobile phones and the biggest surveillance states aren’t always dictatorships, according to a study by Comparitech

“This latest research of 50 countries finds that every police force has some level of access to your mobile phone and its data,” according to Rebecca Moody, head of data research. The majority employ remote phone hacking technologies - even in countries often thought of as privacy advocates like New Zealand, Australia, Germany, and Denmark. The US and UK, meanwhile, are implementing invasive practices that pose threats to privacy.

Phone Surveillance in the US and UK

Even if your cell phone is off, the US government can turn it back on, Edward Snowden told NBC in 2014. Smartphone users are all but powerless to stop security services from getting ‘total control’ over their phones, Snowden added.

It’s been going on for decades. As far back as 2006, the FBI was reportedly tapping cell phone microphones as eavesdropping tools on alleged Mafia figures, activating their cell phone microphone and listening to nearby conversations. The technique is called a ‘roving bug’, Z-Net reported. “And it was approved by top US Department of Justice officials for use against members of a New York organized crime family.”

And it’s not just the FBI or NSA. UK intelligence agency GCHQ can hack phones without the owners' knowledge. GCHQ could access a handset by sending it an encrypted text message and use it to take photos or listen in on conversations, Snowden said. The UK government declined to comment when approached by the BBC.

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Phone hacking spy tools

It seems British spies have been working on phone tapping for some time. Snowden listed several tools the intelligence agency uses: 

Dreamy Smurf - A power management tool that can turn your phone on/off without altering you.

Nosey Smurf - A 'hot mic' tool that allows GCHQ to turn the microphone on (even if your phone is off) and listen in. 

Tracker Smurf - A geo-location tool that allows GCHQ to follow targets with greater precision than the typical triangulation of cellphone towers.

Paranoid Smurf - A GCHQ self-protection tool that makes it difficult for phone technicians to discover anything's amiss. Snowden said that would allow GCHQ the freedom to continue tracking "who you call, what you've texted, the things you've browsed, the list of your contacts, the places you've been, the wireless networks that your phone is associated with…”

And smile. They can also photograph you.

Protecting Privacy: What can you do about it? 

There are steps you can take to protect your privacy.

Check your privacy rights in your home country. Police in Austria, Belgium, Finland, and Ireland, for example, can only access cell phones if the target is a suspect and a warrant is in place. Do you feel your rights are being breached? Contact a privacy regulator such as the Data Protection Commission in Ireland. Or if you're in the US, get in touch with the American Civil Liberties Union or Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).

If you’re new to the topic, read EFF's basic guide on how online surveillance works and Tool Guides for instructions to install the most secure applications.

If you are using a cloud service provider, read the small print. The guidelines will vary in different parts of the world so your provider may or may not comply when a government asks for data. Where does your provider stand?

Also check the privacy policy of your smartphone provider. Apple’s guidelines, for example, say: “For all devices running iOS 8.0 and later versions, Apple is unable to perform an iOS device data extraction as the data typically sought by law enforcement is encrypted, and Apple does not possess the encryption key.” Don’t feel complacent just because you have an iPhone, though. Apple is interested in monetizing customer data, so it may not be able to prevent rogue apps from spying.

A lot of phone activity is tracked, according to the American Civil Liberties Union but you can fight back. The ACLU suggests researching solutions for the privacy problems posed by Android and iOS operating systems. Alternatives include using privacy-focused operating systems such as CalyxOS and GrapheneOS.

You may want to also check out the phone service Pretty Good Phone Privacy which uses encryption techniques so it can’t know that the user of a mobile device is you, or what data you are sending from that phone.

What are the chances police are spying on your phone? Read the Comparitech 2023 study to dive into the country-focus details.



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