Posted: May 10th, 2010 by Gadget42
A CBS4 I-Team investigation into your safety and security raises troubling questions about your cell phone and how it might be used against you. We’re not talking about how a cell phone and its records could be used in a court of law, although that’s a possibility too, but how it can be used as a tool to spy on your life by people meant to do you harm.
What’s worse, the technology is so advanced that experts say people can spy on you using your cell phone and you will have no idea it’s even happening.
I-Team investigator Stephen Stock spent the last six months researching how this technology works.
Talking, texting and tweeting you see it all the time.
If they appear to be everywhere, the US Census bureau says they truly are. In a nation of 309 Million people officials estimate there are as many as 200 million cell phones.
The majority of Americans use all these cell phones to talk, text or tweet.
But all this high tech communication hides a dark and troubling danger.
“I don’t think the general public is aware how insidious this can be,” said private investigator and cell phone spyware expert Tim Wilcox.
Wilcox owns and runs one of the premier private investigative companies in the country, International Investigators, Inc. International Investigators does a lot of things. But one the company’s specialties and expertise is uncovering and exposing hidden spy tools like bugs in cell phones and other appliances.
Click here to go to the International Investigators’ website.
“It takes about 90 seconds to download the spyware and you’re in business,” said Wilcox of some versions of this software that can be loaded onto someone’s cell phone.
The spyware is a lurking danger that turns your cell phone into a secret listening device, an instrument used to spy against you. Worse yet, you’ll likely never know it is on your phone.
“There could be anywhere from three to five or six million cell phones that are infected with spyware (at any one time),” said Wilcox.
This spyware, otherwise called malware, can be found through a simple search on the Internet. The software can be loaded onto your phone in a matter of minutes or even seconds. Once it is on your phone and operating it can turn your cell phone against you.
“I put $70 malware onto a phone (for demonstration) through blue tooth and then onto this computer,” said Daniel Smith, an expert in uncovering and defeating this type of spyware.
Smith, a recent graduate of Purdue University’s College of Technology, is an expert at finding and getting rid of malware on all kinds of computers and cell phones. Smith works for International Investigators, Inc. And he travels the country investigating complaints of people who believe their cell phones are being used to spy on them.
“That’s the file name that’s controlling my phone,” Smith said as he showed the I-Team a small piece of computer code, four short lines, hidden among millions of lines of computer programming language that run his cell phone and all its applicatons.
Smith demonstrated for the CBS4 I-Team how easy it can be to install and listen in and how hard it is to detect that the malware is even present.
“This is what we’re looking for?” asked I-Team investigator Stephen Stock pointing to the computer screen. “Four lines of code?”
“Four lines of code,” said Smith. “That is the file in the computer, the spyware.”
These four lines of instructions hide a program that allows the person who installed it on your phone to take every bit of information from your cell phone, your pictures, your personal addresses, your data, your life.
“Now you have a list of everything that’s on my phone,” said Smith as he showed how the spyware quickly downloaded everything from his cell phone for the I-Team to view on another, disconnected computer.
To find out exactly how this all works, the CBS4 I-Team bought and installed several versions of spyware on anchor Jawan Strader’s blackberry. We did all of this with his knowledge and participation.
During the installation and running of some versions of the software the I-Team ran into several glitches. Sometimes the software allowed us to “spy” and sometimes it didn’t.
The I-Team discovered this type of spyware doesn’t always work on all cell phones. The older and less sophisticated the phone, apparently the harder it is to use them to “spy.”
But once the I-Team got the software working, the capability was scary. The I-Team could read all of Jawan’s e-mails. The I-Team read all of his text messages.
I-Team investigator Stephen Stock also got alerts on his cell phone every time Jawan got a call, an e-mail or a text. That way Stock could monitor Jawan’s incoming communication at all times.
And even though Jawan met meeting behind closed doors with news director Cesar Aldama and assistant news director Nick Bourne, even with the blackberry turned off, investigator Stock could still dial in and listen to the conversation while standing several miles away.
And the closed-door meetings’ participants would never have known that Stock was listening had the I-Team not told them. Remember the cell phone was off. Despite that, Stock was able to use the spyware to dial in and listen using the Blackberry’s speaker feature. Experts say that same thing can be done using a cell phone’s camera feature.
The spyware also allows someone to listen in on cell phone calls in real time, as they are happening.
The I-Team also used the spyware to track our expert, Daniel Smith’s, movements in real time. All while he was in Indiana, as the I-Team sat in Miami.
All of this is illegal in the United States without a court warrant. However, this spyware software is sold on the Internet by offshore companies.
Our experts say as many as 5 to 6% of all cell phones in the US may have once had or now have this spyware on them.
“This is a stack of the complaints we get from people worried about their phones being infected with spyware,” said Tim Wilcox as he showed the I-Team a thick folder filled with e-mails and letters from people complaining that someone apparently is spying on them.
“And you get three or four of these a week?” asked I-Team investigator Stock.
“We get three to four every day,” replied Wilcox.
To learn more about the risks associated with spyware on your cell phone the I-Team also traveled to Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, to talk to one of the world’s experts on cyber-security, Richard Mislan.
“It (the cell phone) becomes a monitor of you and the use of your phone,” said Mislan, Assistant Professor at Purdue’s College of Technology.
For more on Purdue’s College of Technology’s click here.
Assistant Professor Mislan also serves on the FBI’s Cyber Crimes Task Force, is Editor of Small Scale Digital Device Forensics Journal and is director of Mobile Forensics World.
Mislan and his students at Purdue’s College of Technology research just about anything you can think of when it comes to cell phones.
Mislan says this spyware technology ability to spy is limited only by your phone’s capabilities.
“The phones are getting more advanced,” said Mislan. “And so when that happens obviously there to be had on those phone. And so say we added a video at this point or a video camera option on this phone. Well maybe now there’s an exploit that allows me to say ‘open up that video camera and let me record everything happening right now.’”
Mislan’s office is filled with old, used phones used in his research. Some of the old phones date back to the beginning of cell phones. Others are the most advanced, high tech mobile tools on the market.
Mislan said he worries that the public and even government regulators don’t realize the safety and security risks this spyware poses to the public.
“Eventually something is going to happen for us to really step back (and assess and do something about this),” said Mislan.
While he doesn’t like to talk about his clients and said there are things he is prohibited from saying, research papers published by Mislan show he and his team have done work for the CIA, the FBI, the National Security Agency and military intelligence.
As for the risk to the public posed by this technology, Mislan speaks freely and unequivocally.
“The more high profile phones you go, the smarter they are, the more data that can be exploited,” said Mislan.
In fact, the federal government is using this technology to check out American citizens without a warrant.
The I-Team learned of a half dozen cases across the country in states as varied as New Jersey, West Virginia, Maryland, Texas, New York and Pennsylvania, where federal magistrates were asked to throw out cases because federal agents had tracked people in real time through their cell phone. In these cases this cell phone monitoring took place without a hearing, without a warrant without even legal probable cause.
One of the cases has now gone to a Federal Court of Appeals in Pennsylvania.
“It’s an incredibly intrusive thing for the government to be able to track you,” said Jay Stanley of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Stanley heads the technology and liberty program at the American Civil Libertiesheadquarters in Washington, D.C. The ACLU has joined some of the court cases listed above in fighting some of the federal prosecutors’ actions.
“It’s not that hard if you’re a bad guy then they can get a warrant on you. If you’re not a bad guy then why do they want to track you?” said Stanley.
Stanley, the ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation have joined efforts in at least two federal cases trying to stop this use of spying on citizens through cell phones without a court order.
“The government is trying to claim they should be able to get location information about your phone both where you’ve been in the past and also in some cases tracking you in real time without going through the Fourth Amendment,” said Stanley. “And without showing a probable cause that you’re involved in wrongdoing and getting a warrant.”
Click here for a link to the Electronic Frontier’s Foundation and a listing of the cases in question.
So far, in all but one case the federal magistrates, judges, even an appeals court, have ruled against the federal investigators and for requiring proof of probable cause.
“If I told somebody back in 1975, ‘You know what, in 30 years every American practically is going to be carrying a tracking device with them that tells the government everywhere they go live and in real time,’” said Stanley. “That person would have said I guess that means the Soviet Union is going to win the Cold War.”