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Smartphones: The Ubiquitous Eyes

Lifestyle & Opinion

By Nassim Bentarka

Smartphones have become an indispensable part of people’s life. An average American assigns a daily period to logging to his or her virtual life device. Hence, these connected devices have become a potential candidate to espionage. The US government compromises these smart devices to get access to private information, constantly monitors people’s social and business activities, all when using highly sophisticated technologies to intercept people’s communications.

In fact, the term smartphone refers to any cell phone which has internet access. The first smartphones with such capabilities have seen the world in 2007. The story as we know it has all began with two big companies: Apple and Google, introducing respectively the iPhone and Android OS. Open-sourced by Google in 2007, Android was introduced as a revolutionary mobile operating system. The fact that Android was free to deploy has led so many developers to make it more versatile to use. This high-tech revolution has made smartphones gain more popularity in the world, replacing old cell phones.

While people find smartphones practical and useful in their daily lives, governments take it as an opportunity to collect personal data, experts call it demographic data mining, but in fact, it’s a huge privacy matter. “Cell phone and Internet correspondence between average citizens and suspected spies and terrorists alike is routinely monitored by government agencies in the United States and elsewhere” (P. Manar 205). Before smartphones have been invented, espionage had its own old-fashioned taste: known as IMSI catchers or fake cell towers, these peripherals have been used to hijack GSM phone conversations just by simulating a cell tower replacing the real with a compromised one; the modern version of this technique is called by security analysts: Man In The Middle attacks (MITM). This evolution of intrusion techniques proves the “attractiveness” of private information to the government; nevertheless, the US government clearly disregards the fact it is constantly spying on people through these ubiquitous tiny machines.

Actually, smartphones come out of the box with built-in connectivity chips, microphones, and cameras. “These cell phones also effectively serve as personal tracking devices. When turned on, they constantly report their location to their cellular service provider, and service providers typically store that location data, at least temporarily” (Waldman, Rachel1. 536). Government agencies such as the NSA are continuously receiving internet traffic data from all over the US. Moreover, smartphones are an easy target as they are connected and omnipresent;

for this reason, the NSA forces popular smartphone software developers to include backdoors and vulnerabilities known as “zero-days” in their code, and which are exclusively exploitable by the government. This process of compromising personal devices have created so many ethical debates; it could perhaps be useful as a counterterrorist procedure, but it is still invading people’s privacy. Let’s take for instance the scenario in where two researchers are having a video chat and talking about a scientific discovery which they’ve just made, and which is supposed to make them tons of money; or more particular, the scenario of a man having an intimate chat with his girlfriend. Assuming these scenarios, what if a government worker is “playing the ghost” and indirectly taking part in the conversations? That is, indeed, the real issue. People nowadays have to always assume that another entity is regularly monitoring their everyday life activities, their social life, or even their business communications. This issue has equally led to the creation of Crypto-Anarchy, a community which raises awareness and develops privacy-first frameworks to make it hard for government agencies to track people.

Edward Snowden, a former Central Intelligence Agency employee has revealed confidential information about a US government espionage program. “A flashy-sounding NSA program was launched in 2007 called PRISM. This is a program that allows the NSA — subject to the approval of a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) courts authorization — to access data stored on the servers of major US technology companies such as Google, Yahoo!, Microsoft, Apple and Facebook.” (Hampson, Osler, and Jardine 176) 

Another program had been revealed in 2003, by AT&T technician Mark Klien. Klien reported that “there was a room in the SBC communications building in San Francisco called Room 641A that was being used to monitor Internet traffic” (O’Day 240).

In fact, these programs are concrete evidences of the budget the US government allocates to the development of such technologies. It has even been alleged that the government “legally” makes consents with big companies to provide access to information under what serves national interest… Given the fact that a big part of the GDP is assigned to the military, it is obvious that these programs are in fact cyber weapons to be used in counterterrorism.

Likewise, more advanced techniques are being developed, one of these is Machine Learning, a completely new born technique which mostly deals with Big Data. This technique could easily be used to classify, process, or even try to guess patterns and combinations in any kind of information: text, voice, images, videos… From the same perspective, phone calls, text messages or emails for example can be automatically checked for critical contexts with potential terrorist communications. These classified government programs are getting more and more sophisticated as technology grows with time.

Espionage has existed ever since the very first civilization and has taken so many levels. In this era, where terrorism is a serious global concern, people are experiencing domestic surveillance over their own pockets. The only issue that persists is what is to be prioritized, people’s privacy or national security.

Header photo from Creative Commons. “Liberty or Security” by HéctorRSantiago is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0



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