FBI Surveillance Hacks Android Devices, Laptops

In recent months, Americans were aghast to learn that their phone calls were secretly being recorded and collected by a government agency, the NSA, when the extent of their indiscriminate wiretapping program was leaked to the public. But if you think that’s an invasion of privacy, you’d better hope the NSA never gets its hands on FBI surveillance techniques and tactics…such as the ability to remotely turn on the microphones in laptops and Android devices without you knowing it. How’s that for Big Brother?

Because what’s a little espionage between family?

We’ve all watched enough TV to know that wiretapping is no problem for the mishmash of acronymic government agencies (FBI, CIA, NSA, NASA, etc.), but those same shows have taught us certain assumptions about wiretapping, like the necessity of a warrant, and the necessity of the phone actually being in a call. Edward Snowden took care of the first assumption when he leaked information about the NSA’s all-encompassing phone call and data capturing campaign, but the second one still seemed reliable…at least until the Wall Street Journal reported otherwise.

The article sheds light on the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s increasing reliance on hackers and hacking tools to keep up with tech savvy suspects who are able to thwart more traditional FBI surveillance. Some of the methods they’ve adopted are almost comical, like the spammy technique of hiding spyware in email links (has the FBI started hiring Nigerian princes, I wonder?), but others are frighteningly powerful and invasive.

Just like the rest of them.

A former U.S. official revealed to WSJ that the bureau “can remotely activate the microphones in phones running Google Inc.’s Android software.” That means that FBI surveillance is not limited to phone calls–they can listen in on any conversation you have in the vicinity of your Android device. “It can do the same to microphones in laptops without the user knowing,” the article adds. Both Google and the FBI have declined to comment.

While Libertarians and defenders of civil liberties shout, “I told you so,” U.S. officials insist that these hacking techniques are only used by law enforcement in rare and specific cases. Presumably a warrant is still needed to remotely activate an Android microphone, although as we learned with the NSA, you just can’t take that for granted anymore. Still, I think it’s safe to say we’re not living in a Panopticon yet, mostly because of the manpower it would take to monitor all of us, or even just the Android users. If the government was really trying to watch all of us, there would be a lot more jobs being created.

Of course, with all this new information, it makes you wonder about the things we still don’t know–can a federal agency activate your phone’s camera or your laptop’s webcam? Are Apple users safe from this kind of FBI surveillance? Will future technology be susceptible to the same types of hacks and interference? How much are we willing to sacrifice for “security”–and will we have a choice in the matter?

George Orwell is rolling over in his grave right now, and it’s a good thing he’s buried in the UK. Otherwise, there’d probably be a federal agent listening in and counting his rotations.


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Brent Urmey is an avid reader and writer on a variety of subjects, including social media, SEO, the Wireless industry, and life in Lancaster County, PA. He is a graduate of Drexel University and a survivor of the 2012 Mayan Apocalypse. You can connect with Brent on Google +.