Can the government monitor you via your cell phone?

For a couple years now I’ve heard people say that the government (the NSA or whoever) can use anyone’s cell phone:

  1. To determine their location.
  2. As a covert listening device (via a microphone built into the phone??), even when the phone is “off.”

I’m not a conspiracy buff, so I’m suspicious of these claims. But the capability is certainly there. Are cell phones designed to allow such snooping?

  1. Sort of. The more towers a phone is connected to, the more accurately a location can be determined from triangulation. However, the resolution of this method is fairly coarse, since the output power of the phone cannot be known with any great precision, and local conditions can drastically affect signal strength as recieved by individual towers. There’s no way to perfectly pinpoint someone with most phones currently on the market. Some newer phones are being equipped with GPS, which will markedly improve this ability, but the ones I know about can be turned off by the user, and AFAIK, cannot be surreptitiously enabled from the outside.

  2. Not that I know of. If the phone is off, it’s off. I do not believe it is possible to activate the built-in mike from the outside. In any case, the inclusion of such a feature would be financially disasterous for any cell phone manufacturer if it was ever discovered. Privacy rights activists would be all over them like flies on stink.

1. To determine their location.
There’s some truth to this. The tinfoil hat lads over at HowStuffWorks explain:

2. As a covert listening device (via a microphone built into the phone??), even when the phone is "off."
I hadn’t heard that one. It seems like a good way for the Feds to drown themselves in data.

I do not know the science of it, but government employees are forbidden to have cell phones and similar electronic devices in secured rooms in which classified information may be discussed. In fact, staff in places like the CIA HQ are not allowed to bring cell phones into the building.

I don’t know how it would work, but the concern that has been explained to me is that the transmitter in those electronic devices could somehow be manipulated. I’m afraid I can’t be more helpful than that.

The folks at How Stuff Works are behind the times slightly, it would appear:

From here.

You’ve been listening to the 9/11 commission and all the other stories of bungled spycraft that’s been coming out over the last couple of years and you still believe that the government can do anything?

First, most cell phone companies couldn’t meet the original deadline.

So the FCC gave them until 2005 to come into compliance.

And they’re still having problems getting them to work.

Besides, they can track you by the chip implanted in your… ummmppph.

Highly unlikely.

It is rather easy though to “clone” a specific telephone and listen to all calls that take place through that device. To do that you have to first find the SIM card’s serial number by brute force. This can take a lot of time, and will also drain the battery of the target telephone quickly. So it is not an efficient method to hear conversations.

That’s true, but for a different reasons. It is not that mobile telephones can act as bugs, but what might look like a telephone, could actually be a bug.

It just seems easier to me for them to tap into the system at the tower level, rather than the cell phone level, if they want to listen in on the calls. Cell phones are going to change specs constantly, but the towers are fairly static.

Not just the NSA.

There have been several demonstrations that laptops and other Bluetooth-capable devices can be used to activate and then monitor monitor Bluetooth-capable cel lphones with not warning signal and without the owner’s knowledge.

Don’t take my word for it. There’s a list of known hacking risks on the official Bluetooth website

There was a demonstration of this at a major conference just a few days ago which addressed the Bluetooth SIG’s [rather off-base] dismissal that the risk required the tapper to be within Bluetooth’s short range. They set up a quick demo that a simple antenna could allow a laptop to hack into a phone from a mile away.

Other similar hacks have been demonstrated that allow the hacker to download your saved text messages, call logs – or even [and i find this chilling] insert forged entries or messages that never took place into your phone’s log or queue. Such in-phone logs have been used for DHS prosecutions, and I hate to think how backdated and inserted messages or log entries could be used in office politics.

I wish I could provide more details, but I’m not at home. You should be able to find the details on Goggle under >bluetooth cell-phone security risk<

Re: telephones as passive transmitters. Old telephones, and even a lot of today’s phones in Europe and third-world countries are what is known amongst the snoop and poop bunch (of which I used to be a part) as “microphonic on-hook”. There is no coil to act as an isolator between the handset and the innards. We used to routinely listen in on sensitive conversations at embassies (which is what we were hired to do) merely by going to the punch board and clipping onto an appropriate pair. People talking in the room were easily heard.

Dog80 is correct about bringing cell phones into sensitive areas. They can be jiggered to be active microphones even when apparently ‘off’. In addition, they broadcast like mad and can be listened to by anyone with the proper receiving equipment.

At the hacker convention defcon 12 someone brought an hand held antenna dubbed the bluetooth sniper which was capable of hacking into bluetooth enabled phones from over a mile away and through walls. One of the hacks was to remotely use the phone to dial a number. Basically, you’ve made the phone into a remote listening device.

I have a scanner that can listen to cell phone frequencies… but it used to be much more fun when everyone had an analog cellular phone. There are still some analog use out there, but it is dwindling. When listening, you can hear both sides of the conversation and then blip they switch to a different cell and you have to track them down again. Digital phones are much harder to eavesdrop on, at least for those of us limited to consumer equipment.

Modern phones put out a much weaker signal. Although the GPS thing has always bothered me. Not so much that the government is tracking me, but that the cell companies are logging data to do something with (sell it, etc). However, working in data storage, the logistical side of me says that is too much data to store to make it worth while. Massive computer databases would need to be constructed, and the payoff is not really evident.