How do the police track a mobile phone? It’s actually pretty simple, and even if your phone doesn’t have GPS, it can be tracked.
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Spyware, whether distributed by criminals, advertisers or even states, is a constant nuisance. Yet, some types have the technician in me marvel. Why? Because they’re innovative and intelligently designed. Recently, I came upon an approach that might interest web users, supermarket shoppers and whistleblowers alike. A single sound can betray them all (with a little bad luck).
If you regularly read the news from the world of technology, you’ll eventually develop a thicker skin. They found another security hole in Windows? That’s barely enough to elicit a shrug these days. Over 230 Android apps are listening for an inaudible sound to track me? Now that’s interesting. The principle behind this approach is easily explained yet hard to implement. A sound source (TV or PC speaker, speakers in a supermarket etc.) sends out a very high-frequency sound which gets picked up by the microphone in your cell phone (or laptop) and is then processed by an already installed spyware app. The app then phones home to report on your current activity, e.g. which website you’re viewing, and this data stream can include anything that might be of interest like your device ID, phone number, MAC address and more.
But why wait for a signal? Simple, it’s not about the listening device but the sender. These ultrasonic beacons help spyware authors link multiple devices together across physical boundaries, e.g. to find out what you’re viewing on your PC, not just your cell phone, and to aggregate this data to form a bigger picture. Different contents will simply trigger slightly different sounds. This may sound like science fiction but the concept has already been used by Asian fast food restaurants with apps that saw millions of downloads.
For all of this to work, a big infrastructure is required. First, the spyware has to be distributed either by bundling it with a big name app or by disguising it as a small useful tool. Next, the ultrasonic beacons have to be rolled out. This process is quite straightforward as sounds can easily be embedded into page ads. Once users visit the affected pages, the sounds get played and the aforementioned process triggered. It’s tracking heaven for advertisers eager to personalize their ads! There are also other use cases.
Fast food restaurants could play a sound at regular intervals through their store speakers to figure out who their regular customers are. Department stores could play different sounds for their various departments to determine how long customers are staying in each section. Once multiple businesses start to cooperate, it’ll be possible to reconstruct the path each customer took as they moved through the city. I know marketers who would pay a lot of money to get this data!
Is your cell phone listening to your TV?
It’s also feasible that this technology could be used to locate users who are using anonymization services on the web. Picture a guy that is being persecuted and heavily relies on Tor and VPN to stay hidden. The persecutors could simply create a website they know their target will be interested in and put it on the public Internet or the Darknet. Once their target visits the page, an ultrasonic sound gets played, is then picked up by the target’s cellphone (and the installed spyware app) – and the hunt has just become a lot easier.
Currently, this technology is still in its infancy it seems and there is an ongoing debate about whether this type of software is illegal and should be considered malware. If it were to be implemented as part of a shopping app, e.g. to enable discounts, it might be perfectly legal even if severe restrictions may apply. There have been no confirmed cases of it being used in television programs yet but it’s doable. Once again, legislators are venturing into unknown territory and will have to come up with an adequate response. Another good reason to only install apps from trusted sources and developers and to pay more attention to your pets as living spyware detectors. “Found another one, Fido?” “Woof!”
What I would like to know: do you play close attention to what apps you’re installing on your cellphone or do you blindly trust in Apple’s, Google’s and other distributors’ abilities to reliably detect and filter out spyware?
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LONDON (AP) — Documents leaked by former NSA contactor Edward Snowden suggest that spy agencies have a powerful ally in Angry Birds and a host of other apps installed on smartphones across the globe.
The documents, published Monday by The New York Times, the Guardian, and ProPublica, suggest that the mapping, gaming, and social networking apps which are a common feature of the world’s estimated 1 billion smartphones can feed America’s National Security Agency and Britain’s GCHQ with huge amounts of personal data, including location information and details such as political affiliation or sexual orientation.
The size and scope of the program aren’t publicly known, but the reports suggest that U.S. and British intelligence easily get routine access to data generated by apps such as the Angry Birds game franchise or the Google Maps navigation service.
The joint spying program “effectively means that anyone using Google Maps on a smartphone is working in support of a GCHQ system,” one 2008 document from the British eavesdropping agency is quoted as saying. Another document – a hand-drawn picture of a smirking fairy conjuring up a tottering pile of papers over a table marked “LEAVE TRAFFIC HERE” – suggests that gathering the data doesn’t take much effort.
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The NSA did not directly comment on the reports but said in a statement Monday that the communications of those who were not “valid foreign intelligence targets” were not of interest to the spy agency.
“Any implication that NSA’s foreign intelligence collection is focused on the smartphone or social media communications of everyday Americans is not true,” the statement said. “We collect only those communications that we are authorized by law to collect for valid foreign intelligence and counterintelligence purposes – regardless of the technical means used by the targets.”
GCHQ said it did not comment on intelligence matters, but insisted that all of its activity was “authorized, necessary and proportionate.”
Intelligence agencies’ interest in mobile phones and the networks they run on has been documented in several of Snowden’s previous disclosures, but the focus on apps shows how everyday, innocuous-looking pieces of software can be turned into instruments of espionage.
Angry Birds, an addictive birds-versus-pigs game which has been downloaded more than 1.7 billion times worldwide, was one of the most eye-catching examples. The Times and ProPublica said a 2012 British intelligence report laid out how to extract Angry Bird users’ information from phones running the Android operating system.
Another document, a 14-page-long NSA slideshow published to the Web, listed a host of other mobile apps, including those made by social networking giant Facebook, photo sharing site Flickr, and the film-oriented Flixster.
It wasn’t clear precisely what information can be extracted from which apps, but one of the slides gave the example of a user who uploaded a photo using a social media app. Under the words, “Golden Nugget!” it said that the data generated by the app could be examined to determine a phone’s settings, where it connected to, which websites it had visited, which documents it had downloaded, and who its users’ friends were. One of the documents said that apps could even be mined for information about users’ political alignment or sexual orientation.
Google Inc. and Rovio Entertainment Ltd., the maker of Angry Birds, did not immediately return messages seeking comment on the reports.
The Times’ web posting Monday of a censored U.S. document on the smartphone surveillance briefly contained material that appeared to publish the name of an NSA employee. Computer experts said they were able to extract the name of the employee, along with the name of a Middle Eastern terror group the program was targeting and details about the types of computer files the NSA found useful.
Since Snowden began leaking documents in June, his supporters have maintained they have been careful not to disclose any intelligence official’s name or operational details that could compromise ongoing surveillance.
The employee did not return phone or email messages from the AP.
Michael Birmingham, a spokesman for the Director of National Intelligence, said the agency requested the Times redact the information. Danielle Rhodes Ha, a Times spokeswoman, attributed the posting to a production error and said the material had been removed.
I SPY WITH MY LITTLE EYE……
Somewhere between the cyber espionage that outed the US as Big Brother Inc and the phone-hacking scandal that sank Rupert Murdoch’s British form of journalism, the real news of the world may be Spies ‘R’ Us.
There is now enough equipment available via the internet to turn anybody into their own James and Ja’mie Bonds.
The US/Murdoch shenanigans – plus the report that some embassies are being used to intercept Asian phone calls and data as part of a US-global spying network – came courtesy of high-end, high-tech gear operated by highly experienced pros.
But people can buy lots of devices – mobile phone monitors, listening bugs, night-vision cameras, vehicle tracking equipment, thermal imaging cameras, video cameras hidden in pens, flash light/stun guns and a hundred other pieces of equipment – that are relatively cheap and light years removed from the invisible ink and shortwave radio of the spy craft of yesteryear.
Private detectives say the rise of the spy gear trade came out of the spouse-busting business.
”It was helpful in divorce cases but quickly became evident how useful this sort of equipment is in various situations,” one former NSW Australian police officer said. ”The whole business got a huge kick along after 9/11 when heightened fears made everybody just a little bit scared of things they never once feared.”
The US is taking flak now because of reports its National Security Agency monitored German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s mobile phone. It’s a fine irony. Ms Merkel once recalled her parents were nervous whenever she talked for too long on the phone. ”Hang up! The Stasi is listening and it’s all being recorded,” her mother said, according to one biography.
Coincidentally, as the Merkel revelations raged, Russia was forced to deny Italian reports it had equipped USB flash drives and cables to charge the mobile phones given to foreign delegates to the G20 meeting at St Petersburg in September with technology to retrieve data from computers and telephones.
Meanwhile, whistleblower Thomas Drake, a former senior executive at the NSA, told the ABC this week it was alarming that a nation would spy on those it considered an ally.
”Spying on others is considered the world’s second oldest profession and so the idea that nation states would engage in spying on others is no surprise, not at all,” he said.
”I think what’s particularly pernicious here is the fact we’re actually listening on the personal communications of the highest levels of governments in countries that are supposed to be our allies and are actually partnered with us in ensuring that we deal and defend against threats to international order and stability.”
Since humans started building empires and information considered secret or confidential was obtained without permission, people have been calling military intelligence an oxymoron.
But it took the British to turn spying into high romance. At empire high noon, the 1903 novel The Riddle of the Sands: A Record of Secret Service by Erskine Childers established the spy thriller. Half a century later, as the sun set on empire, John Le Carre’s George Smiley and Ian Fleming’s James Bond kept the Union Jack fluttering.
But Smiley’s pragmatic calculations and Bond’s louche bedroom antics have been replaced in real life by high-tech cloak and dagger and, as WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden prove, the rise of Everyman espionage.
Commercially available, can operate in low light conditions and detect motion.
Hidden camera detector
Scans for power use, transmissions or even low levels of light reflected back from a tiny camera lens.
Can be attached magnetically to vehicles. Battery powered to operate for weeks.
Magnifies sound from a long distance away and stores in a digital recording device.
Minature cameras attached to sunglasses can covertly record anything in line of sight.
IT security firm Kaspersky claims it has discovered the “most sophisticated” Android trojan yet.
Identified by Kaspersky as “Backdoor.AndroidOS.Obad.a”, the mobile menace can send SMS to premium-rate numbers, download other malware and install them on the infected device, as well as send malware to other devices via Bluetooth, and remotely perform commands in the console.
Obad is also extremely well concealed, by means of code obfuscation, and it uses several previously undocumented security holes in the Android operating system to make it very hard to analyse.
Once the trojan is executed on a device, it immediately tries to obtain Device Administrator privileges. Then, it becomes a real nightmare.
“One feature of this Trojan is that the malicious application cannot be deleted once it has gained administrator privileges: by exploiting a previously unknown Android vulnerability, the malicious application enjoys extended privileges, but is not listed as an application with Device Administrator privileges,” said Kaspersky Lab Expert Roman Unuchek.
Kaspersky representatives said they have already informed Google about the vulnerability in question.
The only good news about this trojan is that it’s not very widespread. According to Kaspersky, it amounts to no more than 0.15 per cent of all malware infection attempts on mobiles.
You can find more information about the Backdoor.AndroidOS.Obad.a trojan here.
If you have followed the startling revelations about the scope of the US government’s surveillance efforts, you may have thought you were reading about the end of privacy. But even when faced with the most ubiquitous of modern surveillance, there are ways to keep your communications away from prying eyes.
A new frontier of sweeping secret surveillance is not a conspiracy theory but a burgeoning reality.
First, instead of browsing the internet in a way that reveals your IP address, you can mask your identity by using an anonymising tool such as Tor or by connecting to the web using a Virtual Private Network, or VPN.
Additionally, you can avoid Google search by using an alternative such as Ixquick, which has solid privacy credentials and says it does not log any IP addresses or search terms or share information with third parties.
When it comes to sending emails, if you are using a commercial provider that has been linked to the PRISM spy initiative, you can throw a spanner in the NSA’s works by learning how to send and receive encrypted emails. PGP or its free cousin GPG are considered the standard for email security, and these can be used to both encrypt and decrypt messages – meaning you can thwart surveillance unless you are unlucky enough to have Trojan spyware installed on your computer.
Novice computer users learning how to use PGP or GPG may find it daunting at first, but there are plenty of tutorials online for both Mac and Windows users that can help guide you through the process. For journalists working with confidential sources, attorneys seeking to ensure attorney-client privilege, or others whose work requires secure communications, learning how to use PGP or GPG is an absolute necessity. Organisations seeking to protect themselves from email grabs could go one step further: they could take more control of their messages by setting up their own email server instead of relying on a third-party service, helping ensure no secret court orders can be filed to gain covert access to confidential files. And if you need to store private documents online, you can use Cloudfogger in conjunction with Dropbox.
For instant messaging and online phone or video chats, you can avoid Microsoft and Google services such as Skype and G chat by adopting more secure alternatives. Jitsi can be used for peer-to-peer encrypted video calls, and for encrypted instant message chats you can try using an “off the record” plugin with Pidgin for Windows users or Adium for Mac. Like using PGP encryption, both Pidgin and Adium can take a little bit of work to set up – but there are tutorials to help ease the pain, such as this for setting up Adium and this tutorial for Pidgin.
As for phone calls, if you want to shield against eavesdropping or stop the NSA obtaining records of who you are calling and when, there are a few options. You could use an encryption app such as Silent Circle to make and receive encrypted calls and send encrypted texts and files, though your communications will be fully secure only if both parties to the call, text or file transfer are using the app. Other than Silent Circle, you could try RedPhone (Android and iOS) for making encrypted calls or TextSecure for sending encrypted texts.
A new frontier of sweeping secret surveillance is not a conspiracy theory but a burgeoning reality. But it is not an Orwellian dystopia – at least, not yet. Tools to circumvent government monitoring exist and are freely available. The onus is on us as individuals to learn how to use and adopt them.
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