• NSA Can Track You Through Your Phone’s Battery Use

    February 26, 2015 // 21 Comments »

    snowden hopex

    I see you out there.

    Sitting in front of your computer. I see what you’re wearing, who you are with. I know where you have been today, and who you interacted with. I know where you were last night.

    Watching You

    We are shocked on a daily basis at the degree our cell phones can be used to monitor our movements. The most basic technique is via the phone’s built-in GPS; heck, that system is actually designed to locate the phone in physical space, and can at least be turned on and off (though it appears the NSA may be able to remotely trigger the system.)

    Next up is the way that cell phones work. Your phone is constantly seeking to connect to three cell towers at once. As you move around, it drops the connection to the weakest signal, holds on to two others, and reconnects to a new third. This happens seamlessly, and so you can keep talking to your girlfriend even as you drive (don’t use your phone while driving.) Your location can be tracked fairly accurately by someone who is measuring your triangulated point among the three towers.

    And when your phone connects to a Wi-Fi signal (how’s that Starbucks latte?), your location is easily determined.

    Lastly, the NSA has access to the SIM chip in your phone, which basically opens up the basic encryption used that might have in olden days offered some modicum of privacy.

    Location via Battery Levels

    Now, here’s another way.

    A team of security researchers from Stanford and the Israeli government (!) just published the details of a technique that lets spies watch as you move around by monitoring tiny changes in your phone’s battery level. It all comes down to how hard your phone has to work to ping those three cell towers. The towers that are further away or obscured by a building or hill cause your phone to use a little bit more power. If the spies know your normal routine, they can track your movements with 90 percent accuracy. If they don’t know your routine, that accuracy drops to about 60 percent. That may still be enough to place you close enough for whatever purpose, or to find you for closer monitoring.

    This is especially concerning because there’s not really any way to protect yourself from this kind of surveillance, aside from taking out your phone’s battery. Most any app can gain access to battery usage data, so a hacker could either build a fake app to monitor that data or pull data from another app.

    Funny thing: in the Edward Snowden documentary, CitizenFour, Snowden tells reporters visiting him to remove the batteries from their phones and place everything inside the metal box of the room fridge.


    And Oh Yes, They’re Watching You

    And oh my does the NSA like tracking your phone.

    The National Security Agency is gathering nearly five billion records a day on the whereabouts of cellphones around the world, enabling the agency to track the movements of individuals — and map their relationships — in ways that would have been previously unimaginable. The records feed a vast database that stores information about the locations of at least hundreds of millions of devices 24/7.

    Sophisticated mathematical tech­niques then enable NSA analysts to map cellphone owners’ relationships by correlating their patterns of movement over time with thousands or millions of other phone users who cross their paths. So let’s also hope you don’t accidentally find yourself nearby anyone the NSA is interested in. Since the ever-hungry NSA cannot know in advance which tiny fraction of the records it may need, it collects and keeps as many as it can — 27 terabytes, by one account, or more than double the text content of the Library of Congress’ print collection.

    And for those last seven or eight people who still cling to “Hey, I’ve got nothing to hide,” good for you. You may not be an ISIS super-villain, but really, nothing to hide from your girlfriend, boyfriend, boss, creditors, stalkers, ex-spouse, creepy guy downstairs, complete strangers, nobody? Because once information is collected, it exists, and once it exists it can be hacked, shared with foreign governments, your local cops, leaked or otherwise made available.


    So smile, and speak up — somebody’s paying attention!




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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Democracy, NSA, Post-Constitution America

    Good News? Maybe. Supreme Court Says Cell Phone Searches Need Warrants

    July 1, 2014 // 9 Comments »



    There are signs of hope that the Supreme Court will return to its check and balance role of the Constitutional era.

    One such sign, directly addressing the Fourth Amendment (the Court also just issued a ruling determining the procedures for challenging one’s inclusion in the No-Fly list are unconstitutional, another hopeful sign) is a recent opinion that the police cannot search the contents of an arrestee’s cell phone without a warrant.

    Good news? Maybe.

    The Supreme Court Recognizes Tech Affects the Fourth Amendment

    Prior to this decision in the case of Riley v. California by the Supreme Court on June 25, 2014, law enforcement held that if they arrested someone, say for a simple traffic offense, they had the right to examine the full contents of his or her cell phone– call lists, photos, social media, contact, whatever was on the device, what one writer called a “montage of the user’s life.” Police traditionally have searched physical objects they find on an arrestee without a warrant, typically with the rationale that such searches were for the protection of the officers (Got a gun in that backpack?) In the case that was before the Court, a traffic stop for one man ended up with him in jail for other alleged crimes based on the contents of his phone. The Court combined the Riley case with a similar one in its decision.

    The Court acknowledged that cell phones today represent far more than a “physical object.” The information they hold is a portrait of someone’s life, the same as a closet at home, or a computer sitting on your desk. Searches of those locations almost always require a warrant, and now, so will searches of your cell phone if you are arrested. An exception exists for “exigent circumstances,” such as the infamous ticking time bomb scenario where a terrorist with knowledge of an imminent attack is arrested. An legitimate exigent circumstance might also include a child kidnapper caught running a red light, whose phone might reveal the location of his victim. Common sense, if not abused by the cops.

    (As background, the Supreme Court flirted with these issues about two years ago in ruling against warrantless use of GPS tracking devices by the police. In U.S. v. Jones the Court stated “GPS monitoring generates a precise, comprehensive record of a person’s public movements that reflects a wealth of detail about her familial, political, professional, religious, and sexual associations” and thus violates a person’s expectation of privacy.)

    Bad News

    Does this matter when talking about the NSA’s and the FBI’s technological dragnet? Maybe. Some suggest that law enforcement will work around the new restrictions by seeking perfunctory, expedited warrants automatically for each arrest, or through the use of technologies such as Stingray, which can electronically gather cell conversations without warrant. Stingray can also be used to track a person’s movements without a warrant, negating the old-school GPS devices the Supreme Court declared require a warrant.

    Good News

    On the positive side, while the Supreme Court decision on cell phone searches applies directly to street-level law enforcement, it does suggest an evolution within the Court that recognizes the way advances in technology have changed the Fourth Amendment. A cell phone is not an object anymore; it is recognized as a portal to other information that a person has gathered in one place for convenience with, as of this decision, a reasonable expectation of privacy.

    The hope now is that future Court cases will take the “new” concept that using a cell phone creates a reasonable expectation of privacy, and enlarge that to cover more of Americans’ digital lives. Can you hear us now NSA?




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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Democracy, NSA, Post-Constitution America