Paranoia and Mobile Phones

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Some friends have started to demand that before any conversation takes place, even when the chat is really about nothing but mundane and insignificant things, that all our mobile phones are not only switched off, but have their batteries removed too. Some go further by demanding that the offending instruments be placed outside of the vicinity of their gathering.

The claim, of course, is that someone somewhere could remotely activate a mobile phone’s microphone and listen in to a conversation without any outward sign that this is actually happening. I thought that this was a wee bit over the top and a James Bond gone completely mad syndrome. Or maybe, it’s the sign of the times in Bahrain, where trust seems to have been completely and utterly eradicated and people are reportedly afraid of being fingered, owing to the continuous arrests and perceived witch hunts taking place. Unfortunately, people are said to have become afraid of voicing even harmless comments, or get terrified due to unfortunate verbal outbursts said even in privacy when sometimes one’s passion overcomes reason. Hence the insistence on disabling mobile phones before any conversation could take place.

I decided to find out if there was any merit to those claims.

I am absolutely shocked to have found out that that this has been going on for some time and the fears of remotely activating various features of mobile phones quite substantiated. The first article I came across set the tone quite adequately:

FBI taps cell phone mic as eavesdropping tool

The FBI appears to have begun using a novel form of electronic surveillance in criminal investigations: remotely activating a mobile phone’s microphone and using it to eavesdrop on nearby conversations.

The technique is called a “roving bug,” and was approved by top U.S. Department of Justice officials for use against members of a New York organized crime family who were wary of conventional surveillance techniques such as tailing a suspect or wiretapping him.

Read more on cnet News

Damn! And this has happened in the States six years ago! Can you imagine the state of that technology now with the huge advances in modern and relatively cheaply available mobile phones like the iPhone and the Blackberry? I bet the tools available now will not only be stealthy that one would never know that they’re actually installed on handsets, but also be able to transmit the full gamut of the phone’s features, including address books, text messages, installed apps stored data, audio, location information and even video too!

I decided to see how available such applications are. Another quick search resulted in quite a number of readily available applications. These include apps which turn your phone to a mobile and undetectable security camera while another much more pernicious and invasive application which turns your phone into a remote and an undetectable microphone as well as enable call logging, call interception, email relay amongst many other functions limited only by the actual capabilities of the mobile phone.

Are you scared yet?

You should be.

There are ways in which you can probably detect that your phone has been tampered with or monitored, but it will probably take an expert in the field to really find out if it has. It apparently only takes minutes to install an app if it’s off the shelf, but that’s not the only way to ingest such code though. Home brewed applications from the hacking world have many more methods to invade your phone without you ever clicking on to your own culpability in helping such an invasion to happen. One can’t be too careful, really. So, until you have access to an expert to go over and test your phone for an infection, here are some tell-tale signs that your phone might have been bugged:

    1. You have noticed strange sounds or volume changes on your phone lines.
    2. You have noticed static, popping, or scratching on your phone lines.
    3. Sounds are coming from your phone’s handset when it’s hung up.
    4. Your phone often rings and nobody is there, or a very faint tone, or high pitched squeal or beep is heard for a fraction of a second.

Click here for more.

Maybe a good piece of advice might be to stick to an old brick of a phone with minimum functionality if one really wants security; however, even then one can be pin-pointed to within five meters of their location by the telco using simple triangulation methods.

There is really no escape…

But I’m offering my iPhone 4 for immediate sale… any takers?

Update 110421@1223 The plot thickens, the Guardian has an article detailing how the iPhone on iOS4 records locations in a secret little file and someone’s written an application to not only extract that file, but show you directly where you have been with your nice little iPhone on a world map with dates too. The iPhone (and other smart phones) are God’s gift to security agencies the world over!

  • خارجی
    21 April 2011

    Hey Mahmood, I’ve got a great Nokia 3310 complete with charger I’ll swap for it! Since I live 6000km away, I’m not too worried). 😉

  • exclamation mark
    21 April 2011


    I hope you haven’t “spoken much”


  • brobof
    21 April 2011

    (Tinfoil Hat on)
    Not only that but Facebook and even Twitter are part of the conspiracy: HB Gary sock puppets & etc. Then there are the Credit and Debit Cards that localise you with every swipe. And as for your web history.
    “Just because you are not paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.”
    And don’t gey me started on the
    (Tinfoil Hat off)

  • Boo Mayhew
    21 April 2011

    This is well known fact in the UK, plus to police have used mobiles to track people illegally.

    Have you seen the news about iPhones tracking their owner’s movements too?

  • Matthew
    21 April 2011

    Two words, Faraday Cage

    • Oh GOD!
      22 April 2011

      Simple and excellent technical solution.

  • ajax
    21 April 2011

    just so you know how little people actually know in grand schme of things

  • Cathy
    21 April 2011

    I’ll take ur phone, if u come with it to teach me how to use it!!! LOL! The walls have ears. Better get used to it. Anyone who has lived in a communist country would know that (me!).

  • Dan
    22 April 2011

    If your battery runs down quickly, this is a sign that your cellphone may have been remotely turned on and someone may have been using it’s microphone to listen to you.

    I am glad, Mahmood, that after watching tanks(?) roll through your town and after you having been arrested by goons in the middle of the night that you are finally beginning to take some of the things that you see…and can detect…going on around you seriously.

    For What It’s Worth (Good sound quality!):

  • Dan
    22 April 2011

    If your cellphone becomes warm to the touch, warmer than normal, while it is in your pocket, then this is a sign that someone may be remotely accessing it and be attempting to use it to listen to you.

    For What It’s Worth [Lord of War]:

  • Steve the American
    22 April 2011

    I guess that being paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not really out to getcha.

  • Mohammed
    22 April 2011

    لا تبوق لا تخاف


    • mahmood
      22 April 2011

      Yes of course. Typical response except that it’s not appropriate as no one has stolen anything. What we shoud be concerned with is our human rights and their disappearance…

  • Dan
    23 April 2011


    Researchers have discovered the Apple iPhone secretly tracks the movement of users. Do you plan to…

    •I don’t own an iPhone (62%, 437 Votes)
    •I planned to buy one, but won’t now (17%, 120 Votes)
    •Get rid of my iPhone (8%, 59 Votes)
    •Do nothing (8%, 57 Votes)
    •Never again synch my phone (5%, 35 Votes)

    Total Voters: 708

  • CB
    24 April 2011

    Mahmood my friend,

    Run for parliament you can do good there. Instead of others who just yap and complain you can introduce bills, lobby for a coalition.

    Use the open avenues for change.

  • Anon
    25 April 2011

    Looking all over Bahrain to find a handful of people would be incredibly hard. If I were charged with finding subversive elements the first thing I would want to do is narrow the search. An algorithm that looked for large numbers of cell phones coming together and being shut off at the same time would fit the bill nicely. On the other hand if I wanted a private conversation, without drawing attention, I would have everyone leave them on and place them on a table outside and have radio play music to them while we went inside to talk. Or, alternately put them inside and talk outside.

  • Sharif
    26 April 2011

    When I bought my Android phone, which is based on Google, I noted that considerable personal information is being placed on the ‘cloud’ (servers). Such information include my saved passwords for email accounts, Wifi & social network applications (e.g. Facebook).

    Other information that is sent to Google servers include location, web browsing history, and even application related data, such as workout data and games being played.

    Is it OK ‘cos everyone is doing it?(I mean Apple and Microsoft). Answer. as long as it’s legal, and FBI/CIA folks can look at it when in need.

    Although computer savvy users can can limit such exposure, there is much information being sent outside user control with internet connectivity. This means ladies and gentlemen, our privacy is invaded 24/7.

    Talking about ‘bugs’ (spying mechanisms), I personally think that password related hacks (e.g. emails/social networks/wifi)are much more prevalent and easier to deploy than offline voice recording of phones.