Secure Your Smartphone

Editor’s Note: Statistically, your kids and grandkids are far more susceptible to snooping than are the older generation. This article is your
chance to let the younger members of your family know that you pay attention to important issues. This is one you might want to pass around!

They’re ubiquitous now and becoming “smarter” with each new generation that gets released. No, this isn’t a story about drug-resistant bacteria. Or about drones (yet). It’s a story about so-called smartphones – specifically, the privacy threats you may be unwittingly exposing yourself to and the
privacy solutions you can employ.

If you own a mobile phone that was made during the past four years or so, chances are it is a smartphone. That is to say, it has the ability to take photos and video, connect to the Internet via cellular or wi-fi signals, track your location via GPS, and perform many of the functions of a personal computer.

If you just want a phone that makes and receives telephone calls, all the extra features your smartphone provides may be worse than unnecessary. They may cause distraction, frustration, and untold privacy violations.

How the NSA Hacked Into
Millions of Smartphones

A SIM card is a portable memory chip that sits inside your mobile device. It contains your personal account data. Recent revelations show that the NSA and the British spy agency GCHQ accessed information from millions of SIM cards produced by Gemalto. This breach may have given the government access to your unsecured phone communications.

There are many other ways for government agencies to monitor your phone calls without obtaining a warrant. Blanket phone tapping in a targeted area can be carried out using a device called StingRay. Police departments use StingRay to intercept calls and texts from cell phones. StingRay works by simulating a mobile network tower. It “tricks” all cell phones within range to transmit their signals directly to the police (or whoever controls the StingRay device).

Apps to Make Your Phone
Communications More Secure

There are a number of apps you can install on your smartphone to make your communications more secure. Among them:

  • WhatsApp
  • Signal (also known as TextSecure on Android)
  • RedPhone (which works with Signal/TextSecure to encrypt your phone calls).

Even with security upgrades, Android phones may still be less secure than iPhones with similar upgrades.

Apple iPhones and other smartphones have applications that give you a secure Internet connection for your audio or video communications. iMessage and the popular FaceTime program, from Apple, are two such apps. FaceTime is an app that allows video calls. For example, grandparents can talk face-to-face with their grandkids, even when they may be hundreds of miles apart.

FaceTime may actually be more secure than conventional phone calls. That’s because Apple encrypts communications sent from one iPhone to another. Even if a hacker or government agent accessed Apple’s data, that data wouldn’t be decipherable even by Apple.

That’s probably the case, anyway. We can’t know for sure that government agencies don’t possess backdoor keys that enable them to get through Apple’s encryption.

Why Governments May Be Unable
to Win Their War on Encryption

It’s in the government’s interests to have the public continue believing that standard encryption is secure. Every time the government breaks into encrypted communications, it risks being publicly exposed as having that capability. That will drive people into alternative methods of encrypted communications. And those methods may well be beyond the government’s reach.

We know that the government possesses the ability to defeat some types of encrypted communications. But from a practical standpoint,
it’s unlikely that you or any other ordinary citizen would be the direct target of a government-initiated, encryption-defeating hack. At least, not at this point in time.

If encryption-defeating techniques are to remain effective, they must be kept secret from the public. Thus, they won’t be used in most ordinary
investigations – even criminal investigations. They will generally be reserved for use on suspected terrorists or high-level enemies of the state. Still, the possibility does exist that even if you aren’t a terrorist (or mistaken for one), the encryption on which you rely for privacy could be defeated. It’s unlikely. But possible. Another possibility is that the most effective forms of encryption will be banned. British Prime Minister David Cameron has vowed to ban the use of all encryption over the Internet. However, his own government says such a ban would be “technologically infeasible.”

Often technology empowers government agents and private snoops to more easily violate our privacy. But with encryption, technology gives privacy-conscious individuals the upper hand. Even if governments succeed in bullying the largest software providers to provide back-door keys to government agencies, it’s simply not possible for any government to stop or defeat all forms of encryption.

The Most Secure Phone You Can Buy

If privacy is paramount, then an ordinary smartphone won’t do. Perhaps the most secure out-of-the-box mobile phone you can buy is the recently released Blackphone 2. The Blackphone was developed by Silent Circle, a company founded by Internet security pioneer Phil Zimmerman. It runs on software called PrivatOS and is billed as “NSA proof.”

The Blackphone 2 sells for $649.

Block Your Phone from Making Unwanted

You can prevent any phone from receiving or transmitting data by enclosing it in a special sleeve or pocket that blocks electronic signals. This is a good place to keep your phone when you don’t want to be trackable or reachable. You won’t be able to receive any calls while your phone is stored inside a signal-blocking sleeve, but applications that don’t require connectivity will still work.

Physically preventing your phone from connecting to any networks is sometimes the only way to be absolutely certain that it isn’t connecting. Even
when your phone appears to be turned off, it can still potentially be sending or receiving data. And you may never realize it.

A shielding sleeve may also offer protection against electromagnetic pulses, or EMPs. In next month’s issue, we will delve deeper into the EMP threat. We’ll also go over the dangers posed by electromagnetic frequencies that are emitted from smart meters, wi-fi routers, and other devices. As always, we’ll cover practical ways in which you can protect yourself.