FBI Remotely Switches on Android Microphone


When you hear Big Brother, you think of video surveillance or GPS locating. When you think of those smart hackers, you think of your mobile device being used to spy on you and what you do. But I never thought the government would get involved, not. I knew this could happen, but is it happening to you now?

The FBI has developed the capability to remotely switch on the microphones in Android handsets and record user’s conversations, claims an anonymous former U.S. official. The same technology also enables investigators to do the same to microphones in laptops without the user knowing, the person said. The claims, made in a Wall Street Journal report on the FBI’s use of hacking tools, come hot on the heels of revelations that the National-Security Agency gathers data on millions of American citizens.

The bureau is investing heavily in recruiting hackers in order to improve its surveillance capabilities to catch terrorists and criminals in the act. The FBI is supposed to have a warrant in order to carry out such surveillance techniques, but sources familiar with the FBI say these new methods are increasingly seen as a way of getting around having to apply for a warrant in some cases.

However, the ex-FBI official told the WSJ that the tools are only used when other surveillance methods won’t work. “When you do, it’s because you don’t have any other choice,” they said. The concept of remotely forcing a cellular mic to eavesdrop isn’t entirely new. The FBI’s so-called “roving bugs” were used against alleged mobsters in 2004, and in 2002, the FBI kept tabs on supposed criminals using the microphone in a vehicle’s emergency call system. What is new is that the FBI now has a dedicated hacking group, the Remote Operations Unit.

The FBI hires people who have hacking skills, and they purchase tools that are capable of doing these things,’ said the former FBI official. The Journal mentions in the article that law enforcement agencies distribute “spyware to computers and phones through email or web links.” Neither the FBI nor Google, the tech giant behind Android, has commented on the allegations.

One can reasonably assume that means there isn’t an inherent feature that allows the FBI to flip a switch and listen in on any Android user’s conversation. Law enforcement agencies hack devices by installing malicious software that grants them access to a specific device. It’s possible that someone smart enough to avoid installing apps from untrusted sources or fall for phishing scams is also smart enough to avoid falling for tricks that might expose his or her device to becoming a spy tool. What’s more likely is that the FBI could trick someone into installing an app that could stealthily activate the microphone. There’s no way to say that definitively because both Google and the FBI declined to comment on the article.

Many times before I’ve said those intelligent hackers can do anything. I knew that the government would utilize those great minds. I just hope they are using that power, when they’re really not needed just to see if anyone is talking about a “Bomb.” People use “bomb” for other things not just idle threats, but for slang too.

Forrest L. Rawls


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