Listening In

Even if they’re off, cellphones allow FBI to listen in
By Kevin Coughlin
Newhouse News Service

It should come as no surprise that cellphone calls may be tapped by law enforcement.

But authorities also can use cellphones to eavesdrop on suspects, even when the devices are off.

The FBI converted the Nextel cellphones of two alleged New York mobsters into “roving bugs,” microphones that relayed conversations when the phones seemed to be inactive, according to recent court documents.

Authorities won’t reveal how they did this. But a countersurveillance expert said Nextel, Motorola Razr and Samsung 900 series cellphones can be reprogrammed over the air, using methods meant for delivering upgrades and maintenance. It’s called “flashing the firmware,” said James Atkinson, a consultant for the Granite Island Group in Massachusetts.

“These are very powerful phones, but all that power comes with a price. By allowing ring tones and stock quotes and all this other stuff, you also give someone a way to get into your phones,” Atkinson said.

Privacy advocates called such use of roving bugs intrusive and illegal. Webcams and microphones on home computers soon may be fair game for remote-control gumshoes, too, they said.

“This is a kind of surveillance we’ve never really seen before. The government can and will exploit whatever technology is available to achieve their surveillance goals. This is of particular concern, considering the proliferation of microphones and cameras in the products we own,” said Kevin Bankston, a lawyer for the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

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