Governments Can Secretly Track Cellphones Around World

Image: Governments Can Secretly Track Cellphones Around World Sen. Rand Paul holds cellphones in front of U.S. District Court on Feb. 12, 2014, to announce the filing of a class action lawsuit to stop NSA surveillance of U.S. phone records. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Monday, 25 Aug 2014 08:12 AM

By Elliot Jager

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Exploiting lax security in the system cellular carriers use when directing calls, texts, and Internet data, the surveillance industry is offering governments — and anyone else — the capability of tracking cellphone users without their knowledge or consent anywhere, The Washington Post reported.

Location tracking is a feature of modern life — to locate taxis, cafés, and family members — but such tracking demands consent and can be blocked by users. The technology the surveillance industry is selling provides access to carrier location databases even without the knowledge of the phone companies. Once a phone is located, calls can be intercepted and documents, photos, and contact lists accessed, the Post reported.

Cellular networks must track where their customers are in order to forward calls and text messages. Surveillance systems clandestinely gather this data. The National Security Agency, for example, has long had comparable capability. Now, any government, as well as hackers and criminal syndicates, might gain access to this technology commercially. The surveillance industry generates billions of dollars in sales. And the tracking is practically impossible to block, according to the Post.

Eric King, deputy director of Privacy International, which focuses on the dangers of surveillance technology, said, "Any tin-pot dictator with enough money to buy the system could spy on people anywhere in the world. This is a huge problem," the Post reported.

Verint, located in Melville, New York, with operations also in Israel, offers surveillance technology advertised with the slogan "Locate. Track. Manipulate." The company advertises "actionable intelligence solutions" though it says, in reference to one of its products, that it is not available for use against U.S. or Israeli phones.

"You’re obviously trackable from all over the planet if you have a cellphone with you, as long as it's turned on," said Berlin-based telecommunications security researcher Tobias Engel. "It's possible for almost anyone to track you as long as they are willing to spend some money on it."

All cellular carriers use a global network known as SS7 when directing calls, texts, and Internet data. Experts say that SS7 was not designed to be secure. The surveillance technology exploits inquiries transmitted over SS7 to find out from carriers which cell tower a caller has used most recently, according to the Post.

"People don't understand how easy it is to spy on them," said Philippe Langlois of the P1 Security research firm in Paris, the Post reported.

It is questionable whether it is against the law to track people in other countries. There are no international agencies charged with enforcing global cellular privacy. The complexity and interconnectedness of the global cellular system makes defending against surveillance extremely expensive and might interfere with the routine processing of calls, experts say, the Post reported.

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