Hacked off


by David Moss

September 2010


"Why do you keep robbing banks", asked the judge, and back from the dock came the reasonable answer "because that's where the money is".

As with the banks, so with mobile phones – the temptation for journalists and their private investigators, for the police, the security services, local authorities and others to mine your mobile phone data may prove on occasion to be irresistible.

The current interest is in hacking voice mail. But that's only one of the rich deposits stored in the global cloud of the mobile phone networks. It is possible for your calls to be listened in on, your instant messages can be monitored (as we learn from the recent BlackBerry travails in the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and India), and your text messages may not be safe from snooping either. If you use your mobile phone for emailing and web browsing, those uses, too, are open to intrusion.

And then there are the special features built into mobile phones.

The network operators know where the phone is, pretty well wherever it is in the world. They have to. That's how networks work. And as you voluntarily take your mobile phone with you wherever you go, that means they know where you are. If you and another person try to have a secret meeting, perhaps to discuss a potential takeover or merger between companies, and you both have your mobiles with you (just with you, you don't have to be using them), then that meeting is not secret.

The network operators know who you call and who calls you. They have to, to connect the calls and to charge for them. So they know who your associates are.

That's all quite standard. Nothing new there. More powerful than an electronic tag, the mobile phone is a richly-featured ID card permanently projecting your identity and your location and your circle of contacts onto the record of the global networks. We know that.

But there is more. It is possible for an eavesdropper to download software onto your mobile phone, without your knowing it, so that he or she can switch on the microphone at any time and listen to the takeover discussion, or whatever, hearing the contributions of everyone in range. Allegedly, our security services employed that technique on Kofi Annan. And don't think that turning the phone off is always a protection. Many handsets are just in stand-by mode when you think they're off, and the microphone can still be switched on. You have to take the battery out. (Is even that enough? If your mobile phone has RFID technology in it, a current can always be induced. That's how contactless technologies like Oyster cards work ...)

Barack Obama found it hard, it is said, to give up his mobile phone once he became President in January 2008 but give it up he had to, it was a security risk. It took the US National Security Agency until April 2009 to design a mobile for him safe enough to be used as long as he only communicates with other owners of the same highly secure device. Security was a problem for the President's pre-April 2009 mobile phone and, democratically enough, it's just as much a problem for yours today.

"Why do you keep hacking mobile phones", asked the judge, and back from the dock came the reasonable answer "because that's where the information is".

David Moss has spent seven years campaigning against the Home Office's ID card scheme.

2010 Business Consultancy Services Ltd
on behalf of Dematerialised ID Ltd