Why Smart Phone Owners Should Be Scared

As most of you out there probably already know, we live in a surveillance society where our governments not only have truly scary legal powers (plus the technical ability) to spy on pretty much everything we do, but also exploit these powers to the full.

You probably also know that smart phones make us even more vulnerable to government surveillance than other forms of technology. We carry them around with us at all times, use them as a primary means of communication and interacting with our friends, work colleagues, and the wider digital universe, and we store photos and other intimate details about our lives on them.

Smart phones for quite some time have also been widely known to be extremely insecure. Despite this, however, Edward Snowdon’s comments to BBC1’s Panorama program last night should give any smart phone owner kittens.

In the program, Snowden talks about four cyberweapons used by the UK spy agency GCHQ to spy on targets:

  • Dreamy Smurf is the power management tool, which means turning your phone on and off without your knowing
  • Nosey Smurf is the ‘hot micing’ tool. So for example if it’s in your pocket, they can turn the microphone on and listen to everything that’s going on around you
  • Tracker Smurf… is a geo-location tool which allows [GCHQ] to follow you with a greater precision than you would get from the typical triangulation of cellphone towers
  • Paranoid Smurf… is a self-protection tool that’s used to armour [GCHQ’s] manipulation of your phone. For example, if you wanted to take the phone in to get it serviced because you saw something strange going on or you suspected something was wrong, it makes it much more difficult for any technician to realise that anything’s gone amiss.”

smurf spy box

Snowden concludes that,

They want to own your phone, not you.

These revelations are not new. The Guardian published GCHQ slides obtained through Snowden that mention these tools back in January 2014, and these documents were also presented as evidence by Privacy International in its (largely unsuccessful) legal bid to prevent GCHQ unlawfully using malware to spy on British citizens.

smurf 0

smurf 2

smurf 1

The fact that Snowden has raised the issue again on such a flagship BBC program as Panorama, however, is likely bring it to the attention of a wider audience.

It is unclear how this ‘Smurf army’ works, but Snowden seems to suggest that the attack vector is via text messages that carry a hidden payload. GCHQ has so far declined to comment on the allegations.

The entire Panorama program is available on BBC iPlayer (and will continue to be available until September 2016.) Non-UK residents can easily access iPlayer using a VPN or SmartDNS service.

Douglas Crawford I am a freelance writer, technology enthusiast, and lover of life who enjoys spinning words and sharing knowledge for a living. You can now follow me on Twitter - @douglasjcrawf.

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