Last month, we discussed whether the new Microsoft Kinect could be used as an NSA spying tool. When it comes to the microphones in Android cell phones and laptop computers, though, surveillance might not be a theoretical question. The Wall Street Journal reports that the FBI can already remotely activate those microphones to record conversations.
Remotely activated cell phone bugs predate iOS and Android
That's according to a single anonymous former US official, mind you, and neither the FBI nor Google was willing to confirm or deny the report, but remotely forcing a cellular mic to eavesdrop isn't a new idea. 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's new, according to several former anonymous officials, is a dedicated FBI group which regularly hacks into computers, using both custom and off-the-shelf surveillance software which it buys from private companies.
According to one of the Journal's sources, the "Remote Operations Unit" will sometimes install that software by plugging in a physical device like a USB drive, but can also do it over the internet like any other trojan, by "using a document or link that loads software when the person clicks or views it." While that source also claims the FBI takes care to make sure that only "relevant data" gets collected, it's still a little troubling to know that such a thing is easily possible and regularly done. It's worth noting that the government generally needs a warrant to conduct such surveillance activity, particularly where private content like audio conversations are concerned, but that assumes the US government doesn't simply conduct a warrantless wiretap and call it a "state secret" to block lawsuits.