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FBI Taps Cell Phone Microphones in Mafia Case 274

Posted by Zonk
from the lots-of-conversations-about-merchandise dept.
cnet-declan writes "We already knew the FBI can secretly listen in to car conversations by activating microphones of systems like OnStar. A new Mafia court case suggests that the FBI can do the same thing to cell phones. The judge's opinion and some background information [pdf] are available for reading online. The most disturbing thing? According to the judge, the bug worked even if the phone appeared to be 'powered off.' Anyone up for an open-source handset already?" From the article: "This week, Judge Kaplan in the southern district of New York concluded that the 'roving bugs' were legally permitted to capture hundreds of hours of conversations because the FBI had obtained a court order and alternatives probably wouldn't work. The FBI's 'applications made a sufficient case for electronic surveillance,' Kaplan wrote. 'They indicated that alternative methods of investigation either had failed or were unlikely to produce results, in part because the subjects deliberately avoided government surveillance.'"
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FBI Taps Cell Phone Microphones in Mafia Case

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  • The Solution (Score:5, Insightful)

    by FrostedWheat (172733) on Saturday December 02, 2006 @07:36AM (#17079362)

    Remove the battery.

    Or better yet, don't have one!

  • by iamdrscience (541136) <michaelmtripp@g m a i l . com> on Saturday December 02, 2006 @07:41AM (#17079372) Homepage
    The alarming thing is the possibility that the bug could have been something that was not a physical modification to the phone's hardware, but a software modification. The article suggests that this may have been the case. So while it's probably not the case that the FBI could remotely turn any phone into a bug, the possibility of that being the case is alarming.
  • by Anne Honime (828246) on Saturday December 02, 2006 @07:54AM (#17079422)

    The alarming thing is the possibility that the bug could have been something that was not a physical modification to the phone's hardware, but a software modification. The article suggests that this may have been the case. So while it's probably not the case that the FBI could remotely turn any phone into a bug, the possibility of that being the case is alarming.

    The probability that the judge and the reporter both misunderstood the technical parts of the case is certainly much higher than the probability you can remotely control the microphone of the cellular phone.

  • by plnrtrvlr (557800) on Saturday December 02, 2006 @08:08AM (#17079468)
    ...then I don't care whose phone is getting bugged or how. Technology is constantly changing, so our abilities to moniter the public changes as well. It is the job of the courts to assure the public that this does not occur without probable cause. As long as there was a court order to bug the mob guys' phone, I don't care how they do it. I just want constant assurances that our government is allowing judicial oversight. This is all just a rehash of the same old story from back in the days when they were first tapping phone lines across the street from Ma Bell's switchboard.
  • by cybercrime (930352) on Saturday December 02, 2006 @08:43AM (#17079606) Homepage
    Several ways which suggest that FBI and Nextel were able to actually activate the built-in cell phone microphone remotely, or least use the cellular network to obtain some remote surveillance.

    The affidavit seeking the court order lists the target's phone number his 15-digit International Mobile Subscriber Identifier, and lists Nextel as the service provider. Why would they have to disclose this information to the court if they were just planting an ordinary bug which requires none of the above information? Maybe the affiant wanted to create a diversion for the thousands of slashdoters who would read it and wonder how they did it, or maybe there was a legitimate reason to put all of this information in the affidavit and actually use Nextel's network and the phone capabilities to listen on the target.
  • by idlake (850372) on Saturday December 02, 2006 @09:08AM (#17079696)
    It is the job of the courts to assure the public that this does not occur without probable cause.

    Well, as the Bush administration has shown, it's not the job of the courts to do this. And if spying becomes as simple as pushing a bunch of buttons, you can be certain that people will do it without a court order.

    This is all just a rehash of the same old story from back in the days when they were first tapping phone lines across the street from Ma Bell's switchboard.

    Well, no, it isn't. That required physical access and had significant costs associated with it. Now, the costs are considerably lower, and surveillance follows the person around. That changes things considerably.

    Overall, it's a question of balance, not black-or-white-it's-all-the-same style arguments, like you're making.
  • Open Src? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by guysmilee (720583) on Saturday December 02, 2006 @09:09AM (#17079702)
    An open source cell phone wouldn't fix any of your problems ... there isn't secret software on your cell phone ... imagine a huge company trying to keep a secret like that ... the equipment has simple physical properties that make them easy to assist in snooping no software required. A basic vase in your apartment could be used to pick up sound remotely using some basic physics.
  • by nchip (28683) on Saturday December 02, 2006 @09:09AM (#17079704) Homepage
    It is probably feasible with Qualcomm BREW based handsets in cdma networks. CDMA operator has power to "push" content, including applications to you device. BREW apps can access your microphone and don't necessary need to be visible.

    GSM networks don't have such delivery systems, and use java for applications. Most phones don't support starting Java midlets automatically to backround, or access microphone. Even when in background, running applications are visible somewhere in the menus.

    Basically the java applets are sandboxed, while BREW apps are signed by the operator to be "trustable".
  • by mikelieman (35628) on Saturday December 02, 2006 @09:25AM (#17079770) Homepage

    "It is the job of the courts to assure the public that this does not occur without probable cause."

    We have a 2nd Amendment to make sure the WE can enforce the 1st.

    RELYING on a court to provide for your Freedom and Liberty, when you have NO RIGHT to a Writ of Habeas Corpus is just plain dumb.

    You might NEVER SEE A COURT.

  • by jacksonj04 (800021) <nick@nickjackson.me> on Saturday December 02, 2006 @09:38AM (#17079808) Homepage
    Umm, cell phones aren't required to be locatable. It's a byproduct of the technology used (as with any radio device) which means they are locatable whether there's a requirement or not.

    As for the phased array, does it take into account things like pockets? Not to mention you'd need very detailed weather patterns to cope with the wind carrying sound, Doppler etc.
  • by plnrtrvlr (557800) on Saturday December 02, 2006 @10:23AM (#17079984)
    Actually, the argument you are making is totally different..... I've said "as long as there's a court order" and you've said "but the Bush Admin has shown......" Well, this is the crux, isn't it? As long as the law is followed and a court order is issued before such surveilance occurs, no big deal. "The Bush administration has shown they ignore the law" is a different argument. If the law is followed, it's only the tech that has changed. And according to the article, this new tech still requires physical access first...........
  • by wes33 (698200) on Saturday December 02, 2006 @12:47PM (#17080988)
    Comments here are very confusing. The court application states that the police put a bugging device "in the cell phone". This device worked even if the cell phone was off.

    That is easy to understand.

    What is not so easy to understand is all the comments about cell phones transmitting even when they are "off". I have trouble believing in such magic.

    Now, some cell phones perhaps cannot be fully turned off (as noted in one of TFAs). I have no trouble believing that a cell phone that is turned ON can transmit.

    Battery removal simply makes sure that the cell phone is really OFF.

    So one question is: which model cell phones actually get turned off with the power button (is there is a list, are none of them capable of really turning off, or what).

    I strongly suspect that my antique nokia 3310 is absolutely off when I turn if off (anyone know different?). Anyway, there is no way to remove its battery short of dissassembly.
  • Soapbox much? (Score:0, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday December 02, 2006 @01:07PM (#17081182)
    How perfectly tangential of you to take a technical discussion about cellphones and use it to spout anti-American bullshit. It's the weekend. Relax. Take this time away from your daily axegrinding.
  • Re:Soapbox much? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday December 02, 2006 @02:28PM (#17081756)
    > How perfectly tangential of you to take a technical discussion about cellphones and use it to spout anti-American bullshit.

    I'd like to suggest that criticizing the U.S. government when it does bad things, is actually PRO-American, not anti-American.
  • by kimvette (919543) on Saturday December 02, 2006 @07:03PM (#17084194) Homepage Journal
    Want to know if your phone is doing this while shut off? Turn off your CD player, switch to radio (FM or AM, it doesn't matter, although AM will make it more apparnt), then place your cellphone as close to the head unit as possible. Periodically while powered up you will hear little chirps/blips. If you power the cellphone off, these will stop. If they continue periodically, then your phone is a model which pings the towers while "off" so if you want to make high speed runs on highways without big brother tracking you, yank the battery. Not that I'm one to make high speed runs in rural areas, mind you. . . ;)

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