Yes, @snowden, we can hear you now
I attended New York Comic Con this past weekend, making the annual nerd pilgrimage to the Javits Center, and, like everybody else there, costumed and plainclothes’d alike, I was taking pictures with my phone. Having seen Edward Snowden’s interview with theBBC last week, however, I couldn’t help but wonder about which of the hundreds of thousands of phones at that convention might have been under watch by the NSA. Speaking to BBC’s Panorama in Moscow, the former intelligence contractor-turned-whistleblower described how government intelligence agencies like the UK’s GCHQ possess the capability of sending a person a text message to hack into their smartphone, assuming direct control like Harbinger in Mass Effect. Perhaps none. But you never know whose device has been invaded by smurfs.
According to Snowden, this “Smurf Suite,” named after the famous Belgian cartoon, is the set of intercept tools the GCHQ uses to gain a sort of ownership over a person’s phone. These include such innocuously-named tools as “Nosey Smurf,” which allows the agency to turn on the phone’s mic and listen in secretly, even if the phone itself is off; “Dreamy Smurf” goes a step further, and can switch the device on and off at will. “Tracker Smurf,” well, that’s the tracking tool, of course, allowing GCHQ to follow your location more accurately than you get with normal cellphone tower triangulation. “Paranoid Smurf,” meanwhile, is the suite’s invisibility cloak, making it extremely difficult for even a technician to detect your phone has been infiltrated.
All it takes for the GCHQ to set up shop, says Snowden, is sending a “specially crafted message that’s texted to your number like any other text message, but when it arrives at your phone it’s hidden from you. It doesn’t display. You paid for it but whoever controls the software owns the phone.” As well: “They say, and in many cases this is true, that they’re not going to read your email, for example, but they can and if they did you would never know.” The NSA, who Snowden says supplies the GCHQ with the technology and the directives for this type of surveillance (and is his sole follow on Twitter), utilizes a similar program in the U.S.
Obviously, the intention with this software is to monitor potential terrorists and other criminals, who use smartphones just like anyone else; as Snowden points out, though, to find the needles in the haystacks requires the collection of mass data.
The GCHQ has refused to comment on the issue, as is its policy with matters of intelligence, only insisting that its work is done within a “strict legal and policy framework.”
Still, stories like this are going to make me think twice the next time I find my phone has randomly shut itself off.
By: Jonathan Weicher