Is Someone Spying on My Phone?

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So you’ve heard. All your favourite phone apps are spying on you. But they’re only doing it to serve you ads. After all, it’s fairly harmless, and you’ve got nothing to hide, right?

Hold up a moment.

How would you feel if you learned that those apps were recording your conversations with your phone’s microphone when you weren’t even using your phone? What if you then learned those personal conversations were shared with government security organizations around the world? Ok, less fun 🙁

Suppose you have nothing to hide from the government, criminals can gain the same access using your phone to steal this information.

Oh, and that company phone, your employer could be tracking everything you do.

Ouch!

We talked about some common hacks used to access people’s personal data. But sometimes hacks aren’t needed. A friendly app is all that a tech company or alphabet government agency requires.

Government and Corporate Spies

Admit it. At the end of the day, Facebook and Google are nothing more than behemoth advertising firms. All the bells and whistles are designed with one goal: get your personal data so they can target you with paid ads. And with so much tech successfully achieving that goal, it’s no wonder governments take such an interest. Yahoo, Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon, Google, and even Apple share massive amounts of data with governments.

How do we know?

Because over the past five years or so there have been numerous groundbreaking leaks exposing some of what’s going on.

The NSA

The National Security Agency is the US military’s high-level intelligence outfit. Like the CIA they work in the shadows tasked with the security of the American state. To that end, they’ve managed to secure backdoors to all the tech companies in order to have access to user information. One can see how this can, in fact, be a priceless tool in determining potential threats.

The issue for me and most is the vast sums of daHere is what Edward Snowden revealed to the world on NSA’s activities. Frankly, it scares me.

  • 5 billion phone records collected around the world each day
  • Google and Facebook actively give the NSA unlimited access to their user information
  • The NSA shares information with the 5 eyes which includes British, European, Australian, and Canadian security agencies
  • Data includes photos, instant messages, sexual orientation, financial records, and voice recordings

It’s a bit much uncle Sam.

Google tracking code

In late 2017 an AP story broke about a secret tracking code Google installed on everyone’s device, which tracked their location in explicit detail.

Even if you turn off the tracking settings on your phone, Google’s code can still track you without your knowledge.

The revelations led to a class-action lawsuit (still in progress as of this writing). After all, if you turned the setting off, you expect it to stop tracking you. Google thinks otherwise.

Facebook camera spying

More recently, Facebook got busted accessing people’s cameras while they scrolled their news feed on their iPhones. After getting called out on Twitter in late 2019, Facebook claimed it was a “bug,” and they promptly set about fixing it. Perhaps they just hid it better?

What we do know is that for a month after the iOS 13 update which rolled out in September, Facebook was grabbing massive amounts of camera footage from millions of iPhones around the world.

No thank you.

CSIS

Don’t get too comfortable Canada, because CSIS was recently busted data-mining millions of Canadians personal phone usage records.

It came about when Parliament started to look into tightening up the laws around the surveillance of Canadian citizens. Part of the problem is that the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service is drifting from targetting individuals of interest to targetting the bulk of the population. A growing norm for most countries with the means to do so.

A committee report that revealed CSIS had spent a decade collecting electronic information from the majority of the population, and First Nations people in particular.

Why Spy?

You’ve heard the argument before. If you’ve got nothing to hide, why should you care? After all, these services make your life easier.

But of course, that’s not always true. There are many legitimate reasons for governments, and corporations, to spy on you. But there are just as many dubious justifications for the collection of your personal data. Also, why do governments and corporations need to secretly record you using your microphone and camera? That’s pushing us into Orwellian territory where most can agree we don’t wish to go.

Prevent terrorism

Preventing terrorism is a key application of government data collection. Ever since September 11, 2001, and the sudden spike in terrorism of all stripes since then, governments have become obsessed with terrorism. In fact, government security forces have thwarted several would-be terrorism attempts, even here in Canada. A lot of this is thanks to the data collected.

But get this.

The data only became useful once law enforcement was able to target an individual for surveillance. In that case, traditional warrants were issued and a task force created. Otherwise, there haven’t been any notable terrorist attacks that the mass surveillance of the population has managed to prevent. At least, not that shadowy government agencies are telling us. However, it is possible the public is not being informed when bulk collection results in thwarting an attack since these methods are still denied by many governments.

Serve ads

Beyond terrorism, there are less terrifying reasons to collect your data. For starters, companies love building your profile so they can serve you money-making ads. Just think about it. How much does Facebook and Google know about you? Probably a lot!

But what does the government get out of it? Simply put, the government can track people’s reactions to policies and leaders. According to Canada’s own Office of the Privacy Commissioner, the government:

“…needs information about their citizens in order to deliver programs and set public policies in vital areas, such as health, transportation, public safety and national security.” – Your Privacy Rights, Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada

And this leads us to ask if government policy actually depends on voice recordings of us asking Alexa when our toilet paper is due to arrive.

Blackmail and Extortion

By now you’re probably aware of the threat cybercriminals pose. But what if those criminals are the government?

For instance, did you know that the Chinese government has invested billions in monitoring American, Canadian, British, and Australian health patients? A report from the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission found hundreds of instances of Chinese data collection. Most of this data relates to health records and user health data. But why?

One reason cited in the report is blackmail. For example, the Chinese government could use sensitive health data to blackmail researchers and executives in sensitive research areas to give up secrets.

Is that what we signed up for when we got that new phone upgrade?

Nope.

Pandora is Opened

Information one nation can acquire about other nations is extremely potent. In fact, to compete on the global stage a country must implement modern data collection processes that vacuum up every shred of data possible on our everyday lives.

This is because information readily available on a smartphone can be used for intellectual property theft by means of blackmail or can be used to access main servers of private or government firms where sensitive data is kept.

No example illustrates this better than the Chinese successful infiltration of Lockhead Martin stealing schematics of the F22 Raptor along with detailed ingredients that are used in the secretive war plane’s stealth coating. This fighter aircraft is a national treasure for the United States and had technology unattainable for other competing nations. A massive amount of resources were put into research and development with teams comprising of some of the brightest minds in the country.

Some years later china released the J-20 Fighter. An almost identical replica.

This was before the era of mass surveillance. Imagine if China placed a backdoor to every Huawei Phone today. How many government agencies, diplomatic personnel or private firms use these devices around the world?

Even diplomatic teams can have an edge if they have backdoors to the smartphone of foreign representatives to the U.N.

Worth noting, the US probably still holds the keys to the most effective system.

These systems are incredibly intrusive and uncomfortable to think about. However, considering what is at stake, and how easy it is to gather data, a nation must decide between having an effective data gathering system or accept decline in economic and diplomatic health. I’m afraid privacy and anonymity from government may no longer be an option moving forward.

How Your Data is Used?

The bottom line is this: there are lots of different people using your phone to spy on you. And do you want to know a secret? It’s not computers collecting this data anonymously. There are hundreds of real live people, working for different governments, tech companies, and even your employer, who are accessing your data. They’re viewing your photos, reading your messages, and even watching you and your family on video. And they’re doing it to all of us, 24 hours a day.

Let’s take a closer look.

Big Tech

It’s a no-brainer. Big tech corporations are spying on you. We all know this. And most of us don’t seem to care.

But there’s more to it.

You see, small tech companies are also using our phones to spy on us. Many indy games on the App Store and Play Store are nothing more than malware. Many come from China and act as backdoors into your phone.

So whether it’s Facebook secretly using your camera to record your surroundings or Angry Birds tracking your location, tech companies are spying on you.

Government

We’ve discussed government spying. Julian Assange and Edward Snowden have discussed government spying in detail. And yet it continues stronger than ever.

And the worst part?

It’s those same big tech companies we trust with our data who give governments access. So long for trust.

Governments pressure Tech giants and once the keys are turned over that is that. Direct connections are made between government amalgamating software and your favourite social platform forming a direct funnel of data. Everything is hoovered up.

So far documents mainly implicate the US government alone as using social platforms and direct smartphone backdoors to gather data on every global user. That includes Canadians.

Phone carriers

Warning: you won’t like what you’re about to learn.

That’s because it involves the RCMP, CSIS, and Canada’s Big Three carriers. It hits close to home.

But get this:

Part of the Snowden data dump revealed that Canada’s Big Three telecoms (Rogers, Bell, and TELUS) play loose with customer data. The Mounties need only to pick up the phone and call their contacts with these companies, and they’ll gladly share information on users. No warrant needed.

This means your information, such as where you’ve travelled, who you’ve called, what you’ve browsed and posted, all secretly in the hands of your phone carrier, plus indiscriminately used by the 5-0 without warrants.

Your employer

Did you know that many employers spy on their workers through company phones and apps? There are “incognito agents” which employers can put on smartphones. These circumvent regular security measures built into your phone and track everything you do. They can even access your camera and microphone whenever they want and record you. That includes when you’re not at work.

Most of this gets installed on company phones. However, if a company has an app for employees to install on their own phones, chances are there’s spyware included.

Criminals

Finally, criminals make up a large percentage of people spying on you. Whether they’re using an app, such as a game, or they’re mining data from someone else’s app, they’re out there. For example, in 2018 there was a major Facebook data breach. Just think about how much information Facebook has on you. Especially when you consider Facebook owns Whatsapp, Messenger, and Instagram, and secretly uses your camera to record you.

One particularly grim example is when unsuspecting users receive a message with private photos and a request for a sum of money via bitcoin or risk the publishing of those photos. Phones are very personal and anyone can be a victim of this all to common hack.

The fact is millions of people had their data leaked to cybercriminals, right out of Facebook’s own servers and the servers of other online shops, social platforms and government sites.

It makes sense.

Why would criminals spend time hacking your individual phone, when they can just hack Facebook instead?

Can You Stay Safe?

So it all adds up to this: can you stop the spying?

The answer is mixed. In a way, there are measures you can take to lessen the amount of information that gets collected about you. Here are some of the steps you can take:

  • For Android Phones, choose from a brand that offer fast updates
  • Use a VPN when on public Wifi
  • Don’t use Google apps on your phone
  • Don’t keep Facebook on your phone
  • Avoid employer apps
  • Use encrypted email such as ProtonMail
  • Use zero-knowledge cloud storage such as PCloud or Mega

If you want to get rid of your phone for something more secure, consider selling it to us at Gizmogrind.

Of course, in today’s world, you can’t completely avoid being spied on. That is if you want to use a smartphone and a computer. Even then there are some companies that are better than others when it comes to your privacy. Apple does a commendable job in protecting user privacy, although they don’t go far enough. And if you want a truly secure operating system, you could use Linux.

However, we all need to accept that our data is out there. It’s part of living in the modern world. It’s up to us to determine how much data gets collected, and how.

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