Hacked or not, Ludlam's a target of spies

Summary:Whether its recently perceived dodgy battery life means that Senator Scott Ludlam's iPhone has been hacked by spooks or not, it should come as no surprise that he'd be of interest to intelligence services, both local and foreign.

Whether its recently perceived dodgy battery life means that Senator Scott Ludlam's iPhone has been hacked by spooks or not, it should come as no surprise that he'd be of interest to intelligence services, both local and foreign.

Personally, I think there's a little too much shredded tinfoil mixed into the Senator's muesli at the moment. But the security agencies make it easy for paranoia to run wild in the anti-surveillance echo chamber when they're unable to explain their work honestly and coherently.

At last Saturday's War on the Internet forum in Melbourne, security researcher and anti-surveillance activist Jacob Appelbaum told a crowd of like-minded citizens that "the good Senator's phone has an interesting short battery life after I've arrived ...Could you imagine what that could mean?"

Sure, I imagine it could well mean that the phone has gone "off", as spooks would say; that surveillance software has been installed remotely, and that it's now a listening device. Its microphone is picking up anything within range, and that audio, along with the phone's location and other data of interest, is now being relayed back to its new masters.

We know that such tools exist. It stands to reason that intelligence agencies would use them when they feel the urge.

Appelbaum speculated about it on Twitter, noting that iPhone users started getting battery-life problems after they received carrier updates.

Come Tuesday, Ludlam was telling Crikey that his phone was exhibiting strange behaviour consistent with external interception.

"I was Jacob's chaperone back from Ballarat to Melbourne for the forum ... and I discovered first thing in the morning that the battery was being chewed through freakishly quickly," Ludlam told Crikey. "I needed to put another charge on it by about 10 or 10:30 in the morning. So it was being eaten up two or three times faster than normal."

But wait. Who has Senator Ludlam been hanging around with?

Jacob Appelbaum.

And what has Appelbaum been doing?

Representing Julian Assange, founder of Wikileaks and the figure responsible for a series of high-profile embarrassments to US military and intelligence organisations. And inciting people to commit crimes against the state and organise invasions of personal privacy.

"Sit outside [the new ASIO headquarters in Canberra], and photograph everybody that goes in and out. Find out people that are spying on civilians that are infiltrating ...Find out all the licence plates of all the cars that park in the police parking lots. Find out where the undercover officers are that infiltrate peaceful activists, and f*** them up," he told Saturday's forum.

Identifying a current or former ASIO officer is a serious federal offence, and the same goes for most covert agencies.

Appelbaum told IT staff at internet service providers (ISPs) to reveal where the intelligence agencies' interception equipment is located.

"Find out who provides fibre taps, find out where the fibre taps are, take photographs of them and tell the world," he said.

And for non-IT staff, "Find out their names, find out their home addresses, build the database on the people that promote the surveillance state. Really, in a good way, watch the watchers."

To put it bluntly, Appelbaum is suggesting running a counter-intelligence operation against the Western world's most powerful intelligence agencies, and Ludlam is chaperoning him in Australia and introducing him to people of note.

Of course, said agencies are going to take an interest. They'd be fools not to. They'd do it covertly, because people change their behaviour and hide evidence of any wrongdoing if they know they're being watched. And said agencies can then decide whether to investigate further, or simply mark the file "mostly harmless" and check back again next year.

ASIO, to take an obvious example, is charged with the detection and prevention of politically motivated violence. They'd naturally take an interest in anyone who suggested that we should "take action" against, say, Muslims. We, as citizens, expect them to stop the violence before it happens, which means that they need to know in advance what such extremists might be planning.

That sounds to me like it'd need a little covert surveillance. Check out who that nut-job radio-talkback host is talking to! And if it's nothing but talk, leave them to it, because they're simply exercising their democratic rights.

Appelbaum complained about the spooks "tailing peaceful activists". But how could they know they're really peaceful unless they investigate?

And that, folks, is the dilemma at the heart of this debate.

Sure, digital technology is making surveillance vastly easier and cheaper. Sure, our governments are giving the spooks new powers, and most politicians aren't paying proper attention — and I've written plenty about that elsewhere. Sure, Appelbaum is right when he says that surveillance is the first step towards censorship and oppression, or at least it can be. Sure, the intelligence agencies have far more power than ordinary citizens. And some of them have guns.

We should be concerned about this, and pay more attention.

But this speculation about everyone near Appelbaum having their phones turned into bugs?

It seems that many iPhone users got carrier updates that seemed to have triggered problems.

If the battery drain can't be blamed on this, well, the mobile-phone towers are farther apart between Melbourne and Ballarat. Wireless chips work harder, and chew more power. They also do that when they're battling against the phones in a room full of geeks, or when the user is paying closer attention to what's being said on Twitter than they usually do.

And if I were a spook, I'd have just set up the surveillance via those legal intercept points on the networks. Weeks ago.

Needless to say, the agencies don't talk about this stuff, and the Attorney-General's Department in Australia never comments on individual security issues as a matter of policy. And that's really part of the problem, because it allows rumours and paranoia to flourish.

Topics: Government, Government : AU, Privacy, Security

About

Stilgherrian is a freelance journalist, commentator and podcaster interested in big-picture internet issues, especially security, cybercrime and hoovering up bulldust. He studied computing science and linguistics before a wide-ranging media career and a stint at running an IT business. He can write iptables firewall rules, set a rabbit tr... Full Bio

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.

Related Stories

The best of ZDNet, delivered

You have been successfully signed up. To sign up for more newsletters or to manage your account, visit the Newsletter Subscription Center.
Subscription failed.