The space probe in your pocket (and what it's looking for)

The space probe in your pocket (and what it's looking for)

Summary: Mobile phones have always combined great capabiliity with questionable security. The implications go much deeper into our personal and work lives than many realise

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TOPICS: Security
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The cliché that your phone has more computing power than the Apollo moon lander no longer surprises — but these days, the average smartphone can comfortably beat another class of spacecraft: the deep-space probe.

Take Voyager, Nasa's mission to the outer planets. Each probe has 11 scientific experiments, for measuring magnetism, plasma, light, cosmic rays and so on. A modern smartphone beats that, with up to seven different radio systems, near-field communication (NFC), accelerometers, gyroscope, magnetic field detection, light level, fixed and moving images, proximity, audio and touch sensors.

What's more, like Voyager, a smartphone can be programmed remotely to collect data, store it and send it back. They're so good at it, they're used as experimental computing packs for space research. Unlike Voyager, smartphones cost a couple of hundred quid.

The question is: who's manning mission control, and what are they looking for? If you're security conscious about your workplace, there are no good answers.

Spy phones

Phones have always made splendid aids for spying. Even in the 1940s, wired phones could be tampered with to add an 'infinity bug', which silenced the ring but answered the call, turning on the microphone from anywhere in the world.

When analogue mobile phones appeared, it got even easier. You could monitor a room remotely by taking a mobile phone, setting it to 'silent' and 'auto-answer', and taping it to the underside of a desk. When conversations you wanted to hear took place, you simply had to call the phone and listen. And of course, with lax security by the mobile phone companies, voicemail is another conduit for the buggers.

Smartphones extend those capabilities enormously, even before you start to worry about malware, because you can carry your spy system with you in complete security. Recording phone conversations is one thing, but why not turn on the microphone whenever you like to capture what someone's saying to you?

You can use the Wi-Fi to scan for vulnerable networks, intercept data or launch an attack; follow someone's real social network by comparing their location data with those of their friends; or just wait for the light sensor to say the phone's in the open before turning on the camera and watching what's going on. All things you can do without being obvious about it.

You no longer need Q to be James Bond. If you're the spy, you can have your phone gather data for you.

In short, mobile phones are intensely capable packages of spy technologies, in the same way that scientific space-sensing is a very close relative of spy satellite capabilities.

It's no coincidence that Lockheed, makers of the Hubble Space Telescope, also made the US's Keyhole series of espionage satellites. It's just a matter of whether they point up or down: the same's true of mobile phones and their ability to move information to and from their users.

The result of all these developments is that you no longer need Q to be James Bond. If you're the spy, you can have your phone gather data for you. If you can't get to where the secrets are, then software placed on someone else's phone and remotely controlled will do it for you.

Bug detection

It's also almost impossible to spot. Bug detectors work by sniffing radio signals: good luck winnowing out the bad guy with the MI6 mobile among the thousands of identical, legitimate phone signals on the same band.

If it is too risky to send the gathered data out in real time, you can store it in that 32GB microSD card and send it on when it's safe. And don't worry about a smartphone user setting aircraft mode and silencing the transmitter; malware can always pretend that the mode has been set and keep the link going on the quiet.

It is possible to envisage a thin-client phone that only works with data and apps downloaded from a secure system over a secure link, much like Chrome OS: like Chrome OS, it would work, just not very well. And the thing about mobile phones is that everyone carries at least one and they're easy to hide: if you can't keep them out of high-security prisons, you won't keep them out of your meeting rooms.

We have created a world where everyone carries a wire all the time, disguised as the most normal object imaginable. It may not be under their control, or within their knowledge. And, as far as I can see, there's little that can be done about it.

As Scott McNealy said: "You have zero privacy, anyway. Get used to it." Just don't make the mistake of thinking he was only talking about the internet.


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Topic: Security

Rupert Goodwins

About Rupert Goodwins

Rupert started off as a nerdy lad expecting to be an electronics engineer, but having tried it for a while discovered that journalism was more fun. He ended up on PC Magazine in the early '90s, before that evolved into ZDNet UK - and Rupert evolved with them into an online journalist.

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