Can You Hear Me Now?

This piece from The Guardian last week discusses growing popular support for the use of surveillance technologies, as well as a little feature of your friendly cell phone I hadn't been aware of:

Not only can operators pinpoint users to within yards of their location by "triangulating" the signals from three base stations, but - according to a report in the Financial Times - the operators (under instructions from the authorities) can remotely install software onto a handset to activate the microphone even when the user is not making a call.

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  • Kevin Carson||

    If you're not doing anything wrong, you have nothing to fear.

  • ||

    Holy Crap.

  • ||

    So, what's stopping terrorists from turning off their phones or even taking out the batteries when they're secretly planning their secret plans?

  • ||

    If George Orwell were alive now (21 years after the London he depicted in 1984) he would be astonished by the fact that the sort of surveillance he feared is supported not by a government imposing it from above on an unwilling population but by a groundswell of popular support.

    No, he wouldn't. In the book the only people who seem to care about the all-pervading Big Brother are Winston Smith and Julia. I seem to recall Orwell really made something of a point that most people simply either accepted it, or didn't care.

  • ||

    interestingly enough, my sister's cell phone was stolen recently. She discovered it within an hour, and called the company, who reported that it was in use at that very minute. I said "why don't they triangulate it, or at the very least record who received the phone call so the police could follow up and catch the thief?" the answer was that the company had never found a police department interested in such information when they offered it.

    Yep. the government is about protecting our property rights. Sure. But it "needs" these powers anyway...

  • ||

    Ofcourse these technologies exist. Doesn't anyone watch 24?

  • ||

    Presumably *actual* terrorists planning badness will do just that.

  • ||

    As long as we're talking about technologies from 24, I want a remote control for every nuclear power plant in the US.

    I'll bet that if I had one of those I could find a way to not pay for electricity.

  • ||

    Dear People:
    Recently, I had the misfortune of becoming lost in the woods on a hike. I have been active in the outdoors for years, and this has never happened to me before. Fortunatly, the forest rangers were able to find me by using my cell phone signal when I called for help. This may be one of the positive benefits of this technology.
    Sincerely,
    Leland D. Davis

  • ||

    Leland-I doubt anyone has a problem with the scenario you mentioned. In fact, it seems like a good reason to have a cell. The objection is when they do it without your knowing, and without a warrant.

  • The Wine Commonsewer||

    Not only can operators pinpoint users to within yards of their location by "triangulating" the signals

    I'm pretty sure that's how the cops tracked down OJ Simpson in the Bronco.

    Brave New World Regards, TWC

  • ||

    I'm pretty sure that's how the cops tracked down OJ Simpson in the Bronco.

    Just think, if the cops hadn't had that technology then OJ would have gotten away with murder!

    What's that? Oh, never mind.

  • The Wine Commonsewer||

    the answer was that the company had never found a police department interested in such information when they offered it.

    See now that just pisses me off. But that is truly how it is.

    My sister got ripped off by a check washer who was standing at the bank teller with a forged check in hand. The bank called my sister (named Mo, Hah!) because they were suspicious. The cops wouldn't arrest the forger because "she hadn't actually cashed the check."

  • ||

    If they can turn on the microphone, could they overload the battery and set the phone on fire?

    Used to work on our phasers all the time.

  • CodeMonkeySteve||

    This is old news. Determining position by triangulation of signal strength at the base station is so last century.

    These days most phones have GPS ("for E911 purposes"), but at least you can just turn your phone off, unlike OnStar ("Can we hear you now? Good!").

    ObligatoryOldMovieReference: "Watch out for that pothole!" "Ha ha, yeah right." *ka-chunk*

  • ||

    Well, they could make it work, but it would take at least 12 hours.

  • ||

    If you're worried about your wireless carrier knowing exactly where you are all the time, I'd recommend using Sprint or Verizon. They each use an assisted-GPS system that only gives out your precise location when you use a location-based service.

    But while nearly every new phone offered by the carriers over the last three years has contained the technology, the only service the lazy bastards have activated it for is 911 callling. Sprint has even blocked attempts by third-party application developers to make use of the system (with the consent of a subscriber) to offer services on their own.

  • Jim||

    I agree qith need more survalance!!

  • ||

    Just think how many low level dope dealers they will bust using this technology.

    Saw a quote from the director of Homeland Security yesterday that people would surely prefer giving their personal data to airlines for purposes of a massive security database to "being pulled out of line, being searched, having their belongings examined, and being asked very personal questions in front of all the other passengers." Well, yeah, when you put it like that, it sounds positively reasonable. I guess I'd prefer giving up privacy to avoid public anal probing too-- it's all in how you frame the issue.

    I think too many people give up their freedoms with too little thought, but I am becoming resigned to it. If you are innocent, why would you care if the government or Cingular occasionally activates your phone mic to see what's happening with you? Or places a little camera in your TV, and a remote switch that can be activated at any time? I mean, unless you're one of those freaks that lies around the house naked, what's your problem with that?

  • ||

    Yeah, go with Verizon.

    They can't even find a tree that's interfering with the lines, your house when you need service, or a broken telephone pole.

  • ||

    The flip side to all this is that the laws of physics for cell phones are equal for all mankind. So even though we can use it to triangulate and find the bad guys, the bad guys can use it to find us, which is probably why we've gone to using more unmanned drones in certain operations:

    http://www.globalsecurity.org/org/news/2001/e20010619stealths.htm

  • ||

    If my phone has a GPS in it, there is a serious gap in enablement software. I should be able to do all sorts of cool crap if I have a GPS receiver in there.

  • Jane||

    They should invent a device that is mandatory and would be implanted in everyone. It could continuously transmit your position with GPS, have a microphone to allways listen, and also continuously monitor your blood for drugs.

    If it hears something illegal or detects drugs, the police can find and arrest you and have evidence for a trial.

    I can't see why anyone would oppose this because it could basically eliminate crime, terrorism, and the drugs that cause terrorism, and if you are not doing anything wrong who cares.

    The world is different after 911, with terrorism and drugs we have to eliminate anachronistic nonsense like the bill of rights.

  • ||

    There's a difference between Verizon's landline operations (which, like those of most local phone monopolies, blow) and it wireless business, which is generally considered to offer the best coverage of any of the nationwide carriers.

    That said, I'm a Sprint user myself, mostly because I'm a data junkie, and no other carrier will grant me unfettered use of a Treo 600's Internet connection for $10/month.

  • ||

    Ha! I can barely get one signal, let alone three! The cell phone company will never find me (unless they look at my billing address).

  • ||

    . . . can remotely install software onto a handset to activate the microphone even when the user is not making a call.

    Do phones automatically upgrade firmware? I know land phones like ISDN phones used by companies can have their firmware remotly upgraded. Does it make sense to do this via wireless?

    Also, what I assume you mean is that the phone can be programmed to be remotely turned on so that it makes a call w/o the user being aware. Seems to me that would be possible, depending upon the microprocessor used, the design of the phone, etc.

  • ||

    Joe,

    When I got Verizon, it had the best wireless coverage in the area. I'm not much of a cell user (something of a Luddite, really, when it comes to preferences), so I don't know if that is still true.

  • ||

    Don,

    Mobile phone companies do upgrade firmware. Being able to do it over the network saves a lot of time and hassle.

  • ||

    joe-

    I can't say I'm the biggest Verizon fan, but Cingular has almost no coverage in my apartment complex. Since we prefer to go with 2 cell phones rather than a cell phone and a land line, we switched to Verizon.

    Not their biggest fan, but what else am I gonna do? Cingular is better as far as plans and options...as long as you have service. Verizon isn't always as good, but at least their coverage is good.

    Anyway, since I'm now in contract with Verizon I guess there's nothing that Cingular can do to win me back. Well, short of upgrading their network to cover my area and paying my contract cancellation fee. But that combo ain't gonna happen.

  • ||

    Technological advance is yet another good reason to limit government and make it small. Else government will use the technology against the people.

  • David W.||

    If my phone has a GPS in it, there is a serious gap in enablement software. I should be able to do all sorts of cool crap if I have a GPS receiver in there.

    No, Jason, that is what happens in a real market. It is much slower to happen (if ever) in a duopoly situation (unless the dupoly is correctly regulated but that is hard or maybe even impossible to do).

  • David W.||

    Oh, and if the oligopoly is regulated by the gov't, then it should be expected to cut deals with the gov't at the expense of the customers. For example, the product might be designed include a secret feature that the gov't can use, but the public cannot. Only integrity of the gov't regulators can sto this kind of thing from happening.

  • ||

    David W:

    Perhaps you thought I was making a complaint about the market? I was merely observing that if my particular phone has a GPS receiver in it, the thing is underutilized. I have no doubt that demand will sort this out.

    As for the duopoly, there is worse than the wireless providers out there. There are phones with full GPS functionality, but they are more pricey than my vanilla cheap camera phone.

  • ||

    Of course, if we just broke the big 3 or 4 cell phone companies into 300 or 400, then we wouldn't have to worry about corrupt regulators and secret technologies. 300 companies can exhibit Smitean competition, but they *cannot* keep a secret or afford to hide their light under a bushel basket. That is what is known as the "Invisible Hand Smackdown."

  • ||


    If you are innocent, why would you care if the government or Cingular occasionally activates your phone mic to see what's happening with you? Or places a little camera in your TV, and a remote switch that can be activated at any time?
    Comment by: Jeff at August 10, 2005 04:43 PM



    As long as we can do the same to government officials (including the police) and cel phone company executives.

    Oh wait, in the future, the super-citizens will be allowed to turn off their telescreens. Privacy won't be for us serfs.

  • ||

    The needle on my BS detector is pinned, for several reasons.

    First, how would anyone know when to activate a given phone? The alternative, leaving it transmitting all the time, would drain the battery in no time - a dead giveaway.

    Second, the article refers to "'triangulating' the signals from three base stations." While "triangulating" would imply "three stations" to the technologically impaired (e.g., journalists), in fact only two are necessary, for those who stayed awake during high school trig. More stations would be nice, but why mention three explicitly? Why not four, or more?

    Explicitly specifying three strongly suggests that no one connected with this story has a clue, and just presumed that triangulation would involve three.

    So I'm turning down the gain on my BS detector so it doesn't blow up.

  • TWM||

    Many new cell phones have simple GPS technology in them (including my Nextel), but that is a far cry from remotely turning on a microphone without the owner knowing it.

    I have been in law enforcement for 21 years and I think I would have heard about this technology -- and even used it -- if it existed.

    This sounds like a myth to me.

  • ||

    Ok, first we are talking about software to capture voice data here, not GPS. Everyone should be aware of the GPS capabilities built into their wireless phone which has been strongly supported by the public for 911 services.

    As Eric II stated most major carriers do offer services that make us of the GPS locator for subscribers. So if you subscribe, and it does cost so you can be sure that the carrier won't allow access unless the owner agrees to pay for it, you could use the cell phone you bought your child to track their location.

    The main point of the article is that people need to be aware that as phone's become more intelligent they more closely emulate PC's than dumb rotary dial phones. And just as Homeland Security has convinced congress to allow them to come in an install software on your PC to track your keystrokes there is the same capability to do so on cell phones. However, just like with a PC, if the power is off the software cannot run.

    As for installing the software on the cell phone most carriers are able to "push" software to your cell phone. Again just like with a PC, in fact I just had a similar event happen while typing this. I had requested an upgrade of my Microsoft Project from the company and they just called to let me know they had installed it. While I have been working on my PC, at a somewhat noticeably slower rate, they were installing the upgrade in the background.

    By the same token the government can "push" software to your PC that will enable any microphone or other device (for instance Bluetooth or Wifi connection to local equipment) to activate and pass data back to them. That is if you don't have a firewall installed. Everyone knows how big a problem adware and spyware is, don't think the government doesn't make use of the same capabilities when given a chance. However, unlike MakeaMillion.com, the government can go into your house while you are gone and install software bypassing the firewall.

    Still, bottom line is that your paranoid Lebanese friend is still wrong thinking that a phone can monitor a conversation when off, if he is defining off as powered down.

    P.S. Eric II, as EVDO rolls out increasing the available bandwidth for internet connections watch for carriers to start monitoring for use of the phone for PC access. The phone does report if the data traffic is originating from the phone or from an off-line device. Most carriers, including Sprint, do charge for use of the phone for PC internet access, but today are unable to detect when it occurs. Some, like Sprint, monitor for unusually high data traffic and will come after you if you don't pay for PC networking. This service is more than the $10 a month Vision plan, though I don't know how much.

  • ||

    As Eric II stated most major carriers do offer services that make us of the GPS locator for subscribers.

    Kind of. Non-CDMA carriers use triangulation instead of GPS. And my complaint with Sprint and Verizon is that the only GPS service they offer at this time is E-911. They've decided to drag their feet on offering things like maps, traffic reports, listings of nearby restaurants, etc.

    Most carriers, including Sprint, do charge for use of the phone for PC internet access, but today are unable to detect when it occurs.

    Perhaps, but at this point, Sprint is well aware that many of its subscribers use their phones for this purpose, and have (wisely, I think) chosen to turn a blind eye as long as usage isn't excessive. The rollout of EV-DO may change that, but considering that the technology offers several times as much capacity as 1xRTT, perhaps it won't.

    Anyway, when I was talking about unfettered data access for my Treo, I was thinking mostly of data access for apps on the phone itself. Even just for this, the other carriers charge $30 or more per month for unlimited access.

  • ||

    I don't quite understand what the alarm here is. Granted its a pretty evasive technology, but those have existed for the last century. I would be more concerned about the cops reading my e-mail than knowing where I am talking on a cell phone, because many times I am in full public view. Yet, cops can read my e-mail with a warrent, just like they can listen in on my cellphone conversation if they have a warrent. I don't see how the added information of where I am standing at the time is all that disturbing. Afterall, if they tap my home phone, they pretty much know where I am then too. Is it the position of the people on this thread that no technology should be available to the police? If the police have probable cause to believe that they can obtain evidence of a crime by listening into a cellphone or pinpointing its location, then they can get a warrent and do so. If the police are tracking cellphones without a warrent, which is not clear in this post, then that it may a problem. However, its at lease argueable that since the eltromagnetic sprectrum is accessable to anyone, a person does not have a reasonable expectation of privacy with regards to the existence of his cellphone signal even though there clearly is one for the contents of the signal. Regardless, its a warrentless search problem, however, not a problem with the technology. I don't understand why everyone is having such a fit about the existence of the technology.

  • ||

    Quoting "Occam's Beard":
    "Second, the article refers to "'triangulating' the signals from three base stations." While "triangulating" would imply "three stations" to the technologically impaired (e.g., journalists), in fact only two are necessary, for those who stayed awake during high school trig. More stations would be nice, but why mention three explicitly? Why not four, or more?

    "Explicitly specifying three strongly suggests that no one connected with this story has a clue, and just presumed that triangulation would involve three."
    Unquote.

    And for those of us who went beyond high-school trig, and studied electronics, and physics, we know that triangulation from two stations requires that the receivers be able to receive DIRECTIONALLY... thus establishing the two base angles, and the distance between them (known) for the good ol' ASA proof.

    Sadly for reality, cell towers do NOT receive directionally in any useable way. Tryingto triangulate a source from two stations with directional information, gets you TWO possible loci, 180 degrees from each other perpendicular to the baseline of the two receivers.

    The triangulation done using cell receivers is based strictly on SIGNAL STRENGTH... which (as those of us who stayed awake through the vector-force part of college trig know) requires 3 separate pieces of intensity (aka relative distance) data to establish a point in space using three fixed stations, when you have no angular data.

    (I think you're holding that detector backwards, dude.)

    And if the cell has a GPS receiver in it, well, you don't have to triangulate at all. Obviously.

  • ||

    Errata:

    Insert "withOUT" in place of "with" in 4th 'graf.

  • Francis||

    At my blog I have I hope demolished this as urban legend tin foil hat stuff

    http://www.di2.nu/blog.htm?20050811a

  • ||

    Sadly for reality, cell towers do NOT receive directionally in any useable way.



    Sorry, didn't know that, and of course that changes the conclusion.

    The BS detector is still pinning, (OK, maybe facing both ways), because I still don't believe the bit about activating a microphone unbeknownst to the owner, for the reasons cited above. No way to know when to activate, and leaving it on continuously would clobber the battery in no time.

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