Now that so many of us have smartphones and consider them to be an integral part of our lives, we’re learning that we’re sitting ducks for invasion of privacy by the world’s intelligence agencies.
A man who knows a great deal about that sort of thing – fugitive NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden – says it’s quite simple for spy organizations in both the US and the UK to access your phone with a suite of tools that can send it a special message. Software already in your phone can respond by giving up control of the camera and microphone when it receives the instruction.
“That’s a specially-crafted message that’s texted to your number like any other text message but when it arrives at your phone it’s hidden from you,” Snowden said. “It doesn’t display. You paid for it [the phone] but whoever controls the software owns the phone.”
And there’s very little you can do about it.
In a recent interview, Snowden revealed that the set of tools is called “Smurf Suite”, with each one having a different name according to its purpose. “Dreamy Smurf” has the ability to power the phone on and off. “Nosey Smurf” lets spies turn the microphone on and listen to users and their surroundings, even if the phone itself is turned off.
GCHQ – the British spying agency – even has a “Paranoid Smurf”. It cleverly hides the fact that it’s in control. So if the phone is taken in for service, no one will be able to tell it’s been tampered with.
Snowden’s recent comments are consistent with some reported earlier this year. At that time, his attorney said that the whistleblower doesn’t use an iPhone because it “has special software that can activate itself without the owner having to press a button and gather information about him. That’s why on security grounds he refused to have this phone”.
Snowden also said that GCHQ’s counterpart in the US, the NSA, has spent $1 billion on similar tools. A spokesperson for the UK government told the BBC that it does not comment on intelligence matters but that its spying work is carried out within a “strict legal and policy framework”.