It's not just France: Your phone is 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!