Mobile Technology

It's not just France: Your phone is a surveillance device

It's not just France: Your phone is a surveillance device
Governments and police agencies the world over have access to your smartphone as a surveillance device
Governments and police agencies the world over have access to your smartphone as a surveillance device
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Governments and police agencies the world over have access to your smartphone as a surveillance device
Governments and police agencies the world over have access to your smartphone as a surveillance device

There's a lot of news going around today about the French Government's new policy to allow police to remotely take over a suspect's devices, with access to cameras, microphones and GPS data. But if you think that's uncommon, you'd be very mistaken.

Promising it would only be used in "dozens of cases per year," French Justice Minister Éric Dupond-Moretti yesterday welcomed new legislation allowing such spying for up to six months, where approved by a judge, in cases where possible sentences are at least five years. "We're far away from the totalitarianism of 1984," he added. "People's lives will be saved."

Clearly, it feels like the most obscene invasion of privacy that some police or government operative could hack into your phone and casually observe a livestream of your life. And clearly, it opens the door to casual abuses of civil liberties by people in positions of power, as well as more focused abuses of that power by bad-faith actors.

But the horse has bolted on this one in most places, folks. All the way back in 2006, before the first iPhone came out, the US FBI was remotely activating cell phone microphones – even with the phones switched off – and eavesdropping on suspects, perfectly legally. Back then, you could still pull the batteries out of many phones. Now, not so much.

A Comparitech report in 2022 found that of 50 countries studied, every police force had some level of access to smartphones and their data.

Levels of access were varied, and many countries have warrant requirements. China, Saudi Arabia, Singapore and the United Arab Emirates allow some of the most unfettered access – in China, you don't even need to be suspected of anything. Germany, surprisingly, allows intelligence agents to remotely access smartphones and install spyware on anyone's phone as well, even if you're not a suspect in a crime.

The United States usually requires warrants, but there are plenty of exceptions. Australia goes a step further, allowing police even to modify data on a suspect's phone.

Austria, Belgium, Finland and Ireland are among the best-rated countries for smartphone privacy, with "clear and precise laws that state police can only access mobile phones if the person in question is a suspect and a warrant is in place."

If this kind of access is unacceptable to you, there are options in the market for smartphones with physical switches that prevent cameras and microphones from turning on, in a way that can't be overridden remotely. Even switching your GPS off won't stop your location from being tracked, since your location can be triangulated using the cell towers your phone pings hundreds of times a day.

So for the ultimate peace of mind, either find yourself a phone with a removable battery, or smash every piece of technology you own, and go live naked on a desert island. See you there!

Source: Comparitech

I'm genuinely curious of the mechanisms behind this access. Could the author elaborate further on the means of access?
Although I'm not really in favour of this kind of access, I'm very confused by the outcry. As long as this type of access by the authorities is through a judicial process and warrant I feel it is OK. People will just about share anything online these days and allow apps to access everything on their devices which to me is a bigger threat. I think legislation is needed to curb the indiscriminate access by apps and to allow people to opt out of any accesses not needed to run the app. I am still trying to figure out why a Solitaire game needs access to my camera, microphone, address book, location etc.
Aross: LOL, "authorities use through judicial process"... Do you all NOT remember Edward Snowden??? Pegasus Software developed in Israel was one of the first to be able to do this kind of hacking. Plantair Technologies is another that specializes in this kind of stuff.
Shoot, your privacy stopped, all the way back in the DOS days the first time you clicked the EUA/TOS.
It's just gotten EASIER for companies & governments to know what you are doing.
It amazes me the stupidity of criminals, that take their phones with them when the pull a crime, then try to figure out
how the police knew where they were.
Brian M
Something that shouldn't surprises us. We have all been sleep walking into this, both from companies and authorities.

Having good guys in control should only ever be viewed as a transient affair, power and people change.
If one was ambitious enough to pull the battery, just get yourself a nice little faraday container, and you won't have to be worried about losing your battery.
Joe Botha
The real fun starts when they start retroactively policing and enforcing. Like when your post gets flagged and deleted by Facebook – off a group that has been banned and closed for more than 2 years. Yeah... with your old data already 100% out of your control.
Now apply the same principle to something you said in the presence of your phone 6 years ago...