Estimated 3% of US Cell Phones Bugged

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In a story published this week, Newsweek cites that spyware on cell phones is a rapidly growing phenomenon:

(from The Spy In Your Hand)

Max Maiellaro, head of Agata Christie Investigation, a private-investigation firm in Milan, estimates that 3 percent of mobiles in France and Germany are tapped, and about 5 percent or so in Greece, Italy, Romania and Spain. James Atkinson, a spy-phone expert at Granite Island Group, a security consultancy in Gloucester, Massachusetts, puts the number of tapped phones in the U.S. at 3 percent. (These approximations do not take into account government wiretapping.) Even if these numbers are inflated, clearly many otherwise law-abiding citizens are willing to break wiretapping laws.

Spyware Can Be Installed Without Touching Your Phone

Spyware is usually installed on phones by physical access to the phone by somebody you know. It could be your spouse, friend, family member, coworker, or work adversary who happens to find your phone sitting around when you take a bathroom or coffee break. It only takes a minute or so to install the spyware on newer phones that have Internet access.

Spyware can also be delivered by text message. Just opening the text message can trigger installation of software that will covertly monitor your phone calls and even be able to capture your text messages and even the conversations going on around your phone even when you believe it is not being used.

US law enforcement agencies use cell phone spying technology during investigations. They can turn it on remotely, without ever having had physical access to a phone. They are also known to turn on microphones in cars with GM’s OnStar feature. Similar capabilities are spreading into the hands of criminals, ex-spouses, and other nasty people who may want to harm you and your family.

Countering Cell Phone Spying

Countering cell phone spying is difficult. Obviously not speaking would be effective, but highly inconvenient. Isolating cell phones in sound-damped containers could help, as could playing a variety of background noise in rooms and cars.

Installing anti-virus and anti-spyware software on smart phones may help. But such software is not available for all phones. Even when it is available, it can tax the processing power and drain the battery life of phones. Some available cell phone antivirus programs include:

If you have a Windows Mobile phone, read this article from Microsoft about antivirus software for that platform.

Some of the best steps may be among the simplest. Enable the password feature on your phone, and set it to lock your phone after a short delay. Contact your cell phone service provider and ask them to put a password on your account so that nobody who does not know the password can change the account. To be on the safe side, you may want to make this call from a landline that isn’t tapped or bugged.

Don’t read text messages from people you don’t know or who are being hostile to you. Consider blocking all text messages to your phone. Most cell phone services providers will do this if you request it.

Disable the Bluetooth connection on your phone unless you’re using a Bluetooth device. Don’t accept Bluetooth connections from devices that you don’t own.

You may also want to disable GPS features on your phone unless you are using them.

If you’re reasonably sure your phone has been hacked and loaded with spyware, take it to your cell phone service provider and ask them to reflash it with the latest firmware. You may lose all of your data on the phone, but this could be a small price to pay for piece of mind. Furthermore, change your phone number, change your account number, and have them put an alert on both your old and new accounts that there is suspicion your phone was hacked and used to spy on you.

Law Enforcement May Be Helpless to Stop Cell Phone Harassment

Even when well-intentioned law enforcement agencies try to help people being besieged by cell phone spying and harassment, they often cannot find the culprit or stop it despite months of effort. The story of the Kuykendall family in Washington state is a prime example. They and two other nearby families were victimized starting in 2007 by unknown people who could apparently call them anonymously, record and listen to their cell phones and both calls through them and any conversations around them, see into their homes, and track their movements.

The Kuykendall family’s troubles started in February when 16-year-old Courtney Kuykendall’s cell phone started sending text messages to her friends — by itself, the family said.

Then the threats came. A scratchy voice called daily, sometimes to say that the entire family’s throats would be slit, Courtney’s mother, Heather, told ABC News.

But when the Fircrest, Wash., police tried to find the culprit, the calls were traced back to the Kuykendalls’ own phones — even when they were turned off.

It got worse. The Kuykendalls and two other Fircrest families told ABC News that they believe the callers are using their cell phones to spy on them. They say the hackers know their every move: where they are, what they’re doing and what they’re wearing. The callers have recorded private conversations, the families and police said, including a meeting with a local detective.

Many of the voice mails sound like a teenager’s prank. “Sometimes they say real juvenile things. Sometimes it’s really scary,” Kuykendall said.

In one of the messages, which Kuykendall played for ABC News, the caller said, “I know where you are. I know where you live. I’m going to kill you.”

Children Are Often Targeted with Cyberbullying

Although this isn’t always done by cell phone bugging or spying, “cyberbullying” is estimated to affect up to 30% of children. It generally involves a classmate bullying a child using insulting and abusive text messages, spreading embarrassing photos, and other techniques. Both cell phones and computers are involved.

(from Cyber bullying—Anti-social behavior online)

Cyber bullies use text messages on cell phones, or email, instant messages, social networking blogs, or Web pages to harass, embarrass, and intimidate other kids. The bullying takes many forms, from spreading false rumors and posting embarrassing pictures of others to sending offensive messages, repeated harassment (sometimes sexual), stalking, threats, and even extortion.

There are two big differences between schoolyard bullying and cyber bullying. The cyber bully can use technology to spread his or her offensive messages to many more people very quickly. For instance, an embarrassing photo taken with a cell phone can be sent to dozens of classmates in minutes. Also, cell phones, PCs and the Internet, tend to give the cyber bully a sense of anonymity, which emboldens him or her to make their offensive behavior more vicious.

When coupled with cell phone spying, cyberbullying tactics can drive a victim crazy. It is especially troublesome for children who may not understand how to defend themselves and may be put into a position that if they let a parent know about the cyberbullying being done to them, they may worry the parent will believe the false statements about them.

More Technical Information on Mobile Malware

If you’re computer or engineering minded sort of person and find this problem fascinating, you may be interested in a new book on mobile device security, malware, and protection. Mobile malware has a variety of different behaviors from normal computer viruses.

Mobile phones are always wirelessly connected with a network. They are often hot-synced to a PC, and can be used to infect or control a PC as a result. They are more likely to rove around and come into contact with Bluetooth devices, such as other phones, that they may also try to infect. Mobile Malware Attacks and Defense was written in collaboration with mobile malware defense firm Airscanner and features information including:

Malware has gone mobile, and the security landscape is changing quickly with emerging attacks on cell phones, PDAs, and other mobile devices. This first book on the growing threat covers a wide range of malware targeting operating systems like Symbian and new devices like the iPhone. Examining code in past, current, and future risks, protect your banking, auctioning, and other activities performed on mobile devices.

  • Visual Payloads: View attacks as visible to the end user, including notation of variants.
  • Timeline of Mobile: Hoaxes and Threats Understand the history of major attacks and horizon for emerging threats.
  • Overview of Mobile Malware Families: Identify and understand groups of mobile malicious code and their variations.
  • Taxonomy of Mobile Malware: Bring order to known samples based on infection, distribution, and payload strategies.
  • Phishing, SMishing, and Vishing Attacks: Detect and mitigate phone-based phishing (vishing) and SMS phishing (SMishing) techniques.
  • Operating System and Device Vulnerabilities: Analyze unique OS security issues and examine offensive mobile device threats.
  • Analyze Mobile Malware: Design a sandbox for dynamic software analysis and use MobileSandbox to analyze mobile malware.
  • Forensic Analysis of Mobile: Malware Conduct forensic analysis of mobile devices and learn key differences in mobile forensics.
  • Debugging and Disassembling Mobile Malware Use IDA and other tools to reverse-engineer samples of malicious code for analysis.
  • Mobile Malware Mitigation Measures: Qualify risk, understand threats to mobile assets, defend against attacks, and remediate incidents.
  • Understand the History and Threat Landscape of Rapidly Emerging Mobile Attacks
  • Analyze Mobile Device/Platform Vulnerabilities and Exploits
  • Mitigate Current and Future Mobile Malware Threats

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Further Reading

Spying on Your Cell Phone

Government Abuses Cell Phone Location Information

The Spy In Your Hand

Cell Phone Spying Heats Up

FBI taps cell phone mic as eavesdropping tool

Cell Phone Stalkers Harass Washington Family
Local Police Have No Lead Suspects in a Case Involving Four Months of Cell Phone Harassment

Stalker Terrorizes Family Via Cell Phone?

Cell Phone Spying: Is Your Life Being Monitored?

Tapping your cell phone

Cyber bullying—Anti-social behavior online

Mobilizing educators, parents, students, and others to combat online social aggression

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