Phone surveillance in 2017: Are you being watched?

Posted Feb 24, 2017 by James Walker
Phone tracking is now easier than ever using off-the-shelf software that anyone can buy. As Congress introduces a bill to require a warrant for the mobile tracking of Americans, over 80 percent of the population say they are concerned about being watched.
The Google app on a smartphone
The Google app on a smartphone
Ingo Joseph / Pexels
Tracking phones
Multiple techniques are used to monitor phone communications. At the basic level, software widely available online lets you track the calls and texts made on a target phone. Cybercriminals and governments use malware to compromise devices while law enforcement tends towards "stingrays" capable of detecting mobile activity in the vicinity.
Iranians display the instant messaging app Telegram on their smartphones
Iranians display the instant messaging app Telegram on their smartphones
Atta Kenare, AFP
It's possible to remotely track a phone without ever accessing it physically. Apps like DDI Utilities can be used to connect to a device over the internet and steal messages, GPS location information, emails and files, even if you never encounter it in person. The users of this kind of app range from people legitimately monitoring their own device to people with more nefarious intentions.
Consumer spyware
Publicly accessible tracking packages can be "extremely potent," Cyber Diligence president Yalkin Demirkaya recently commented to Motherboard. The news site purchased the Android spyware SpyPhone Android Rec Pro as part of an investigation into the ease of phone cracking.
The app logs all phone calls, SMS messages, photos and location data created by the phone. It can also remotely activate the microphone, although an alert SMS is sent to the user. To get the malware installed, physical access to the target device is required. However, Motherboard found it takes "seconds" to setup, making opportunist attacks possible.
When it comes to mobile phone calls and data usage  US consumers are paying nearly 20 times as much ...
When it comes to mobile phone calls and data usage, US consumers are paying nearly 20 times as much as Europeans
Jewel Samad, AFP/File
The growth in the consumer spyware market is concerning because it reflects the trend towards "off-the-shelf" malware that doesn't require any specialist knowledge to use. Often, this kind of software is used by people who want to monitor the activity of their spouses, providing an easy way to trace every movement.
The app creators are all too happy to facilitate this kind of domestic tracking. During multiple calls with Forbes reporter Thomas Fox-Brewster, salespeople for consumer spyware app FlexiSpy repeatedly explained how it could be used. One suggested "sneak to get her phone" and then install the app. Despite this being illegal under the U.S. Wiretap Act, the company continued to offer advice even when informed it was Forbes making the call.
It's not just jealous lovers who are intent on monitoring phones. The proliferation of "stingrays" in recent years has been widely criticised by privacy advocates across the world. The devices attach to existing cell towers and mimic their signals. Phones cannot distinguish between the real tower and the Stingray. All the data that flows through the Stingray can be monitored by the authorities using it.
In 2015, London's Metropolitan Police was caught operating at least 20 Stingrays throughout the city. The devices are notoriously hard to detect but can be identified by painstakingly searching for anomalies in the spread of mobile signals. The Metropolitan's commissioner, the most senior police officer in the UK, defended its use of Stingrays, suggesting publicly detailing their use would only benefit "the other side."
A surveillance camera is seen near King's Cross station in London on July 9  2005
A surveillance camera is seen near King's Cross station in London on July 9, 2005
Jack Guez, AFP/File
"If people imagine that we've got the resources to do as much intrusion as they worry about, I would reassure them that it's impossible," he said.
Stingrays are known to be used in other cities worldwide, including in most American states. In some regions, only state police have access to the collected data. This isn't consistent and local police sometimes have the authority to deploy their own masts.
Public opinion
According to a survey published this week, Americans are alarmed by the rising ease of phone tracking. People are particularly concerned about third-party tracking where companies sell personal details for profit. Phone users are also fearful of the government accessing their data.
The study, conducted by Envista Forensics, found that 82 percent of the 1,000 respondents say they "mind" their data being tracked. 27 percent actively avoid using specific apps due to a fear of tracking. 1 in 10 people believe their data is accessed more than 100 times a day.
Although people are worried about tracking, most continue to use their favourite online services and new trending apps every day. Envista found that only 5 percent of people read the privacy agreements displayed when creating a new digital account. The rest click the checkbox and move on, signing over their personal data without reading how it can be used.
The Future
As 2017 begins, data tracking is easier and more prevalent than ever before. The rise of smartphones has fundamentally transformed how we live and work. At the same time, it has opened new avenues of monitoring and control that can penetrate deep into your personal life and be exploited by third parties for monetary gain.
The growth in consumer spyware looks set to continue over the next year and it's unclear how it can be controlled. Smartphones are evolving so rapidly that current trends could change dramatically with little warning, potentially enabling even greater monitoring than today's apps allow.
Justice Department headquarters; Washington  DC.
Justice Department headquarters; Washington, DC.
State monitoring is likely to expand too. With governments fearful of terror attacks and political threats, the desire to monitor the communication of citizens is high. However, some progress has been made in the United States this week as Congress has proposed a bill that would require a warrant to be issued before new Stingrays are setup.
If passed, the bill would make the Department of Justice's current guidelines on Stingray use a legal requirement. Police forces would need to follow a defined, publicly visible procedure before setting up a new monitoring station, potentially giving privacy advocates a foothold to start regaining control of personal data.