Reports of international espionage, clandestine surveillance operations, and spying in general have been regular fixtures in the news this year, and regardless of whether it’s revelations concerning the NSA or fears over Huawei’s intentions, mobile technology has usually been a key part of each story.
The UK government is taking the threat, or perceived threat, of being eavesdropped on by their phone or tablet seriously. According to a report in The Telegraph, security teams removed all iPad tablets following a presentation to the Cabinet last week, so they couldn’t be used to listen in on the subsequent confidential discussions. The report claims that iPads – which we take to mean all tablet computers, not just those made by Apple – are now banned from Cabinet meetings.
Apparently, the concern is China, Russia, Iran, and Pakistan have, “Developed the ability to turn mobiles into microphones and transmitters, even when they’re turned off.” In addition to tablets being taken out of the room, some Ministers are being supplied with lead-lined, soundproof boxes in which to store their smartphones when holding confidential meetings.
Paranoia surrounding bugging heightened last week, as USB sticks and portable mobile phone recharging units given out as “freebies” at the G20 summit in St. Petersburg, allegedly contained Trojan horse viruses capable of snatching data and sending it to a third-party. On a related note, during the summer, a Wall Street Journal report indicated the FBI could remotely activate microphones on smartphones and computers, to listen in criminals conversations.
So-called “Open-mic” technology is a headline feature of Motorola’s Moto X smartphone, and a version of it is also installed on the Nexus 5. Both phones can listen for specific voice instructions, without the user pressing a button to activate the microphone. How comfortable you are with voluntarily carrying around a device which is continuously listening to you, depends on your own personal level of paranoia.
For the UK government though, it seems the threat is very real.