Google, Nokia, Ericsson, Samsung clueless on NSA's phone stalking

Google, Nokia, Ericsson, Samsung clueless on NSA's phone stalking

Summary: Although NSA's elite joint special operations command brags that they've been able to track switched off mobile phones for almost a decade, no one quite knows how they did it.

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TOPICS: Security
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According to the Washington Post, the US National Security Agency has had the ability to track mobile phones even when they are switched off. It's not new news, with the Post's article published July 22 and its source, troops from the NSA's Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), stating they've been able to do this since 2004. The problem is, almost a decade later, no one knows how it was done.

Concerned with the NSA's capability to use a system dubbed "The Find", Privacy International research officer Dr Richard Tynan reached out to a number of handset manufacturers to determine if it was at all possible to track down a mobile phone, even if it was switched off. Tynan asked Apple, Ericsson, Google, HTC, Microsoft, Nokia, RIM, and Samsung. He received replies from four.

Google's reply was fairly brief, as one might expect considering its mobile operating system Android only began in beta form in November 2007, was only commercially available in September 2008, and didn't even exist in 2004.

Its reply was that once a device is powered off, there's no part of the operating system that can remain on, and that it has no way of turning on a device.

Samsung was pretty convinced it was impossible. Its vice president Hyunjoon Kim wrote back stating that once turned off, all the transceivers additionally turn off and that there is no such way to emit a signal.

While Nokia believed that its handsets could not be tracked while switched off, it admitted that there are some components inside devices that could continue to operate even once the device has been switched off.

"One example would be the real time clock, which ensures that when the device is switched on again the user does not have to re-enter the correct time. Another example would be the phone’s charging circuits. Depending on the model, connecting or disconnecting chargers including USB cables, or placing the phone on a wireless charging plate, may cause the device to register the change in charging state and display that to the user, for example by showing a charging symbol on the screen."

However, it stood by its position that the radio components in the device would not be able to transmit any signal to give away its location.

Ericsson was unable to comment on the specifics of its handsets since it is no longer in the business of manufacturing them, but said that in general, mobile phones shouldn't be able to transmit any signals that could identify itself. It said that only the crystal oscillator that helps keep track of the time and minimal functionality for sensing charger connections and when the users presses the power button would be operational at most.

Here we have four companies telling us it can't be done, and the best tin foil hat theory I can summon revolves around the crystal oscillator. In the presence of an electromagnetic field, crystal oscillators' physically distort, and then when that field is no longer present, they generate a corresponding voltage as they return to their original state. Whether it is powerful enough to activate the radio components in a device (even if it makes sense electronically), is beyond my engineering experience and perhaps not even necessary, but it could signal the start of using differential analysis to perhaps fingerprint a device in some general area. Like I said, tin foil.

Either way, it doesn't look like we're going to get a response from the US government. Michael Morisy of open government news site MuckRock submitted two freedom of information (FOI) requests to the government. One was to the NSA, which refused to disclose whether or not The Find existed, as it is a classified in the interests of national defense and that if any such information was available, it would be an operational matter and thus not subject to US FOI laws.

The second still sits with the US Special Operations Command, which had to reconfirm with Morisy that his request was in fact for devices that were switched off.

Honestly? If the US could track phones that are switched off, why wouldn't we have tracked down Edward Snowden, Bradley Manning or Julian Assange earlier? The counter argument to this is typically that the US would only use it where it deems it completely necessary — an ultimate weapon of sorts — but we have loud-mouths boasting about capabilities.

For the truly paranoid, though, perhaps it's time to start having those conversations without anything around, switched on or not.

Topic: Security

Michael Lee

About Michael Lee

A Sydney, Australia-based journalist, Michael Lee covers a gamut of news in the technology space including information security, state Government initiatives, and local startups.

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14 comments
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  • Lead bags?

    Like photographers used to use for when traveling with film.
    kkoeman
    • and stand very still...

      If you can track a cell phone when it's turned off, you can probably track moving Faraday cages... Very still Faraday cages could be explained by man-made structures, so standing very still won't help you out in nature either.
      BorgX
    • Plausible deniability

      We have no idea ... right.
      greywolf7
  • the other question is

    What do they mean by tracking?

    I can think of several ways to tell if there's a cell phone in a certain area and if it's moving. Anybody with EM knowledge should come to similar ideas when you remember there's an antenna in there.
    BorgX
  • FCC Requirement?

    Is it related to this?

    "This device complies with Part 15 of the FCC rules. Operation is subject to the following two conditions: (1) this device may not cause harmful interference, and (2) this device must accept any interference received, including interference that may cause undesired operation."
    mrgy
  • Depends on what "Track Down" means.

    Does it mean to locate phones at a distance and indicate a precise GPS position? Nope. This is just fantasy.

    Does it mean something like a bomb sniffer that can look for UID devices in a very near proximity? Perhaps.
    Bruizer
  • Is they are only limited for US?

    Is they are limited only for US or they are accessing other countries data too, I raise doubt just because most of the major Tech companies are from US.
    Mayur-M2
  • @Mr Lee: think about it

    Quote, "Honestly? If the US could track phones that are switched off, why wouldn't we have tracked down Edward Snowden, Bradley Manning or Julian Assange earlier?"

    In the world of espionage and counter-espionage, there are degrees of engagement: where one agency does not necessarily deploy a weapon of espionage for the mere sake that such a device / technology exists. Also, don't even think about asking (think: neither confirm or deny policy & plausible deniability).

    Takeaway: it was clearly critical to the NSA's objectives to find & track Assange, Manning and Snowden - just not 'avert-world-disaster' critical ... because you can bet your bottom dollar the joint departments would've deployed everything in their arsenal (and then some) if it were; make no bones about it.
    thx-1138_
    • its one thing to know where the are and quite another to extract them

      I don't know about Bradley nee Chelsea Manning... IMO he became a she because she thought her chances of survival were better in the Women's prison (maybe, maybe not).

      Snowden and Assuage were in other countries.
      greywolf7
  • It's likely done via a bug

    Probably something along the lines of this:
    http://news.cnet.com/2100-1029-6140191.html
    JustCallMeBC
  • Are you serious with your doubts?

    Guys, come on, what happens when u call a cellphone?
    One out of three:
    1) It rings, the called cell may and may not answer, either way it means the cell is on.
    2) It says the cell is out of range and could not be found.
    3) It says the cell is shut down.
    The third options clearly shows that the radio towers do know where the cell is, cause if not, they wouldn't have been able to tell whether the device is shut off or not found.
    That shows that every cell receives/sends signals even if it was shut off, and so the tower knows where exactly the cell is.
    You may wonder why does it say "not found" sometimes, that's easy to answer, it says not found when the SIM is taken off the device, so the SIM wont be able to use the device's circuits to send/receive signals to/from the tower.
    So as long as the SIM is inside the device, it can be tracked, to avoid that, remove the SIM from the device and you're done.
    Anyway that thing about tracking Snowden and the other two doesn't make any sense, cause it's already known that they tracked every phone call made on this planet (except in Israel, what a surprise, and I don't know about Russia though), which means that they have already tracked Snowden & the others, but guys, even if they did, it doesn't mean they know everyone's plans, they have the calls recorded, but haven't necessarily listened to each one of them, imagine who can listen to billions of phone calls daily? they need billions just to achieve that, the idea behind the whole operation, is to have every person's activities recorded so when they suspect him/her, they can easily revise his/her record and know whether their doubts were true or not...
    I hope this comment clarifies some stuff for you.
    Ammar Salman
  • If this were truly possible, there'd be no living terrorists.

    Except for the ones that used carrier pigeons or smoke signals.
    matthew_maurice
  • Tracking turned off cell phones

    Is it possible to treat a phone like a passive transponder by probing with a radio signal and monitoring any returns? I imagine this could only work in reasonably close proximity to the phone but who knows.
    peter891
  • Since only traitors wage war on fellow citizens.. time to start some trials

    Since the NSA perverts haven't prevented even a single attack, time to shut the traitors down.
    Reality Bites