Who's Hacking Your Phone?

NBC aired its interview with Edward Snowden on Wednesday night, and there were lots of interesting things about it, particularly how confident and articulate Snowden was. One of the details that stood out for people was when Brian Williams asked Snowden about the NSA's ability to infiltrate your phone. I think the real lesson here isn't the one most people are taking, but to start, here's an excerpt from NBC's write-up:

"The NSA, the Russian Intelligence Service, the Chinese Intelligence Service, any intelligence service in the world that has significant funding and a real technological research team, can own that phone the minute it connects to their network. As soon as you turn it on, it can be theirs. They can turn it into a microphone, they can take pictures from it, they can take the data off of it."

Snowden described how the simple pattern of his phone calls—not the content of the calls but the time and location of those calls—could be invaluable to a security service. And how the content of even innocuous web searches, such as a search for a hockey score, can reveal habits and be used to build a profile of personal information.

"Do you check it when you travel, do you check it when you're just at home? They'd be able to tell something called your 'pattern of life.' When are you doing these kind of activities? When do you wake up? When do you go to sleep? What other phones are around you when you wake up and go to sleep? Are you with someone who's not your wife? Are you doing something, are you someplace you shouldn't be, according to the government, which is arbitrary, you know—are you engaged in any kind of activities that we disapprove of, even if they aren't technically illegal?"

Given that we've known for some time that this kind of thing was possible to do to people's computers with the injection of the proper software, it isn't too much of a surprise that it's also possible to do to smartphones, which are after all just little computers. But what interests me most is the first part of what Snowden said: "The NSA, the Russian Intelligence Service, the Chinese Intelligence Service, any intelligence service in the world that has significant funding and a real technological research team, can own that phone the minute it connects to their network." It isn't only our government that is incorporating every technology it can get its hands on into its surveillance net.

Does the idea of the Chinese intelligence service being able to "own" your phone make you less troubled than the idea of the NSA being able to do it? If so, it's probably because the Chinese intelligence service has no power over you. Not only would they have no particular reason to target you, they couldn't really use what they found against you if they did. But the American government sure could. If there was a photo of you doing something illegal, they could alert your local police department and have you arrested. If they decided there was something suspicious about you, they could haul you in for questioning. Our own government's intrusions are the most threatening, because they're the ones who have authority over us and can control us in other ways.

But to return to the question of foreign governments, I get the impression that U.S. government technologists are often a bit ahead of those in other governments, but if that's true, it isn't by much. Or perhaps a better way to think of it is that it isn't for long. There is no technology the American government has that won't eventually be within reach of other governments, some of which are not so nice.

Consider drones. We debate the Obama administration's use of this technology as though we were the only ones who have it. But you know who else has drones? Pretty much everybody who has a military of any size, that's who. Peter Singer of the Brookings Institution counts 87 countries that have some kind of military robotics. Even the UN is using surveillance drones. As a recent article in Defense One (an Atlantic publication) put it: "Virtually every country on Earth will be able to build or acquire drones capable of firing missiles within the next ten years. Armed aerial drones will be used for targeted killings, terrorism and the government suppression of civil unrest. What's worse, say experts, it's too late for the United States to do anything about it."

At some point, an unfriendly government is going to use armed drones for something like quelling a pro-democracy protest, and the U.S. government is going to condemn this frightening and immoral use of robotic technology against civilians. And the response will be much like the response from China when our government recently accused them of cyberattacks: mocking the idea that it's OK when the United States does it, but not when other countries do it.

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