How plausible are these claims of NSA surveillance/remote control?

I read this piece in The Guardian today. Its author, Luke Harding, claims that while writing a book on Edward Snowden’s revelations he experienced various strange occurrences that he at least implies are the work of the NSA.

He claims that while in Rio de Janeiro, meeting Glenn Greenwald, he stored his laptop in his hotel room safe, only to find, upon returning, that the safe would no longer lock. I don’t have much trouble believing this one, if taken alone.

While still in Rio, Harding says an American calling himself Chris suggested they go sightseeing:

Harding claims to have done some sightseeing with Chris before texting his wife, with “spooky” results:

I find this difficult to believe. If his phone really did malfunction, it was probably just that - a malfunction. Would the NSA really be petty enough to cause someone’s phone to crash because he made some disparaging comments about them to his wife? I doubt they even have the ability to do so - I’m sure they could if they wanted, but why would they bother developing the capability to make someone’s iPhone keyboard freeze? Perhaps “Chris” and the phone malfunction were attempts to intimidate, but honestly, that’s less likely than a genuine glitch or outright lies from Harding, in my opinion.

Finally, he claims that while writing the book back home in the UK, his manuscript began to “self-delete”:

This sounds the phoniest to me. “Flashing and bleeping” is bad enough (it reminds me of those in media who think monochrome screens are more hi-tech) but deleting small pieces of text using the backspace key? If someone wanted to delete the file, they could do so just as easily. Text remote-deleting in this manner sounds like something out of the mind of an author of spy thrillers with very little knowledge of computers. It’s something that might look good in a film but I find it very hard to believe in real life. He also claims to have been working offline, so how could anyone have done this without either a) somehow fooling his computer into showing it was not connected to a network when it was, or b) installing some kind of chip to add secret connectivity to the laptop?

Is this all just bullshit?

Don’t forget, this is the case where the USA and its allies were willing to divert and search the aircraft of a head of state when they believed Snowden was on board. If there was one case to throw all their resources at, this was it.

Whether the NSA would resort to dramatic tactics, who knows? If the stories are true in whole or in aprt, then the tech actions were deliberately dramtic to intimidate and demosntrate power. But then, anyone with access to keyboards or mobile phones would be able to do far more effective things - like wipe files and listen to phones without giving a hint. Plus, would the NSA give a dramatic but ineffectual demonstration of their power where likely it would have no useful result but also give away the extent of their capabilities?

The delete thing sounds more like a stuck keyboard. Flashing iPhone? I don’t think I’ve every seen that happen; but maybe going between air conditioning and extreme hot humitity could do it.

Either the guy is remarkably unlucky, or a major drama queen.

It seems odd that they would have chosen to erase a paragraph that was more or less in support of the government/NSA line, i.e., saying that Snowden’s revelations had indeed damaged US interests.

Sounds an awful lot like ghost stories, or tales about how the Ouija board starts spelling out words on its own. I believe the NSA does have the capability to spy on or hijack a random user’s phone, and even perhaps their laptop. But this type of drama would only make sense in a movie, and wouldn’t serve the NSA. You think Osama Bin Laden’s phone was flashing and deleting text letter by letter?

Sounds more to me like Chris sent himself to “check Harding out.”

Paranoia. Plus confirmation bias. Silly stupid glitches or stuck keys are hardly the work of a major nation’s security apparatus. Heck, if he had taken any notice at all of the technical content of Snowden’s revelations he would have had a good idea of what they are really capable of. Which is stuff on a totally different level of sophistication. Mostly this seems to be a case of someone who is technically inept connecting dots that really don’t connect.

I would imagine that the US was quite aware of what he was doing, in the normal course of operations. Silly petulant actions are not going to be part of how they work. They are not fools.

I can certainly believe that his iPhone would have had some “spyware” (haha) injected into it, to keep tabs on his calls and SMS messages; this can probably be injected remotely. The flashing and the frozen keyboard could have been glitches of that “spyware”.

But the part about the text deleting itself on he computer, that’s just ridiculous. If “they” want to delete your files, they’re not going to do it one character at a time.

If the NSA really has the power to delete text as I’m typing it, then why don’t they stop me as I tell the entire world that I know about th

Right. And those are exactly the symptoms you’d see if something heavy fell on your backspace key. As might happen if you have a desk covered with notepads and books.

…or spilled your warm beer on the keyboard yesterday. :slight_smile:

This. It appears Mr. Harding is already working on the screenplay adaptation of his forthcoming book.

There is No Such Agency monitoring everybody’s cell phone conversations. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe it’s not all that difficult to hack into someone’s computer and delete things.

The NSA is doing things you can barely begin to fathom.

Snarfing up the info on everyone’s phone calls has been getting attention, but it’s with the more subtle exploits that things get interesting.

You want remote? With a technology package they call NIGHTSTAND, they’ve been able to penetrate wifi networks from eight miles away.

And yes, they have exploits for Apple products (and an apparent love for all-caps names). You may want to hide your iPhone - DROUPOUTJEEP is a STRAITBIZARRE based software implant that uses the CHIMNEYPOOL framework compliant with the FREEFLOW project and is supported in the TURBULENCE architechture.

DROUPOUTJEEP gives them the ability to push/pull files from the device, SMS retrieval, contact list retrieval, voicemail, geolocation, hot mic, camera capture, cell tower location, etc. Command, control and data exfiltration can occur over SMS messaging or a GPRS data connection. All communications with the implant will be covert and encrypted.

That’s something they developed in 2008. I’m sure they’re doing much more clever things now.

I agree with gotpasswords. For one thing, there’s no need to compromise an iPhone to intercept text and voice - much easier (and routine, even for non-intelligence agencies) to collect data from the carrier. Any first-world intelligence agency tends to want to make it difficult to detect its collection activities. The man is either a paranoiac, or an asshat.

That’s pretty impressive. But it also rubs it in a bit; I’ve had wi-fi networks I can barely penetrate from 8 metres away.

The main point is, as I said earlier, the exploits described in the OP are either remarkably stupid or faulty, or a deliberate display of might. The whole point of the NSA is that they are secret. They don’t pull intimidation show-off games; they don’t want you to know for sure what they can or cannot do. If they wanted his paragraph or book gone and they could do it, it would be gone, quietly and without fanfare. They would not do it in such an obvious manner. They don’t need to do that and it serves no obvious purpose.

I mean, the British government already threatened everyone with imprisonment. Everyone is well aware that if any government wanted to and did such things, they could find a local criminal willing to commit murder for less (a lot less) than an agent annual salary. Do they really think “delete as you watch” will in any way intimidate people when there are far darker possibilities out there?

It makes no sense for deletion purposes and no sense as a display of power. I say it’s a faulty keyboard.

As for his newfound “buddy”, I would not be surprised if the live asset group is that incompetent. That sounds more like their style.

That’s precisely what I was thinking. If the NSA really took an interest in what he was typing, the words would have disappeared while he wasn’t looking, and he probably would’ve assumed it was a random glitch or perhaps even forgotten that he wrote it in the first place. So having ruled that out, the most likely scenarios are (in order of increasing plausibility):

(A) some random, unrelated hacker, or
(B) a defective keyboard, or something similar, or
© he hallucinated the whole thing, or
(D) space aliens