The NSA Can (Still) Bug Your Phone When It's Powered Off

Back in 2006 we learned about the FBI's ability to eavesdrop on cellphones, even when they're turned off. And guess what? Edward Snowden reminds us that government agencies can still do just that.

"They can absolutely turn them on with the power turned off to the device," Snowden told Brian Williams, referring to smartphones during a recent interview.

The "roving bug" technique that the FBI used in the mid-2000s was even deemed legal back in 2006 — an era that predates the mainstream success of the smartphone. And there's no evidence that the FBI ever stopped using it. But the old news reports about the spying method seem almost quaint when we read about them here, less than eight years later.

From CNET in December of 2006 (a month before Apple announced the iPhone, just for context):

Nextel and Samsung handsets and the Motorola Razr are especially vulnerable to software downloads that activate their microphones, said James Atkinson, a counter-surveillance consultant who has worked closely with government agencies. "They can be remotely accessed and made to transmit room audio all the time," he said. "You can do that without having physical access to the phone."

The only difference now is that we're talking about a different government agency (the NSA rather than the FBI), and a more sophisticated piece of hardware that we're all carrying around in our pockets. Millions of tiny microphones in our homes and our purses — now with HD cameras as well!

Wired has published a very helpful reminder of how to protect yourself from the prying ears of the Feds. Does it actually work? Who knows! But the post also serves to remind us just how short our public memory can be.

The curious thing about this story is that nobody, including Wired, appears to be placing this within the (now historical) context of past government spying — just as very few people referred to the 2009 NOVA episode "The Spy Factory," or the 2007 Frontline episode "Spying on the Homefront" when Edward Snowden's revelations came to light in the summer of 2013.

None of this is to discount the importance of reminders like the Wired post. But it's important to recognize them as reminders — not entirely new revelations. Perhaps this also serves as a great reminder to watch PBS more often.


Image: Screenshot of Brian Williams and Edward Snowden holding a phone during their recent NBC interview