NSA Probably Can’t Track Turned Off Smartphones

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Google Inc (NASDAQ:GOOG), Samsung Electronics Co., Ltd. (LON:BC94) (KRX:005930) and other cell phone providers say claims that the National Security Agency (NSA) can locate cellphones even when they’re turned off don’t make sense because no part of the operating system is functioning, reports Tom Warren for The Verge.

NSA’s tracking method for switched off phones

All cellphones can be tracked when in use by determining which towers they are communicating with, and smartphones with GPS can be located even more precisely, but when The Washington Post filed a story saying the NSA had a nine-year-old method of tracking phones even when turned off, it created a stir. When a phone is off and the operating system isn’t running, you can’t use malware and there is no signal to track, so the feat seems impossible.

There has been speculation that the NSA has malware that makes it appear the cell phone has been turned off while actually keeping it on, but even then the agency would have to infect the targeted phone beforehand (or infect as many phones as possible in case they ever want to use the capability; considering what we’ve learned over the last year it’s certainly in line with other tactics). Other malware exists that can hijack smartphones, but the operating systems in use nine years ago probably couldn’t have even handled such a complex attack.

Privacy implications brought about smartphone viruses

While most people are used to the idea that viruses are a problem for PCs, viruses that affect smartphones promise to be a much more serious problem, and no doubt the NSA is working hard to find exploits it can use. With high quality microphones, cameras, and GPS, hacking into your smart phone would let the NSA (or whoever else) track your movements, listen to everything you say, and get a look at what’s happening around you. The privacy implications are already pretty scary, but if turning off your phone is no defense then it gets even worse. People using old, dumb phones can just pop out the battery, but that’s not an option for most smartphone models.

As far as anyone can tell, the NSA can’t actually track phones when they’re turned off, but the fact that we can’t know for sure is alarming.

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About the Author

Michael Ide
Michael has a Bachelor's Degree in mathematics and physics from Boston University and Master's Degree in physics from University of California, San Diego. He has worked as an editor and writer for several magazines. Prior to his career in journalism, Michael Worked in the Peace Corps teaching math and science in South Africa.

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