NewsTarget has learned that the FBI has developed a technique that can
remotely activate a nearby cell phone’s microphone, thereby turning it
into a listening device.
The "roving bug" technique was approved by U.S. Department of
Justice officials for use on members of an organized crime family in
New York that was getting increasingly suspicious of tails, wiretaps or
other traditional surveillance techniques.
The cell phones of alleged mobster John Ardiot — considered by the FBI
to be one of the most powerful men in the national Mafia’s Genovese
family — and his attorney Peter Peluso, also an alleged mobster, were
activated by this technique in order for authorities to monitor nearby
conversations. U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan ruled that the
technique was legal in an opinion this week, stating that federal
wiretapping law was broad enough to cover the monitoring of
conversations occurring near a suspect’s cell phone. Nextel spokesperson Travis Sowders said the company was not aware of the investigation and was not asked to participate.
The new method works whether the phone is on or off, because many phone
models cannot be truly powered down without removing the battery. Some
models, for example, will turn on from a powered-down state when an
alarm is set.
A 2005 Financial Times article noted that cell phone providers can
install a piece of software on any phone from a remote location,
allowing microphone activation, without the owner’s knowledge. In
addition to activating a mic, the software can also stop a display from
indicating a call in progress, taking away another method by which a
cell phone user could tell his phone had been compromised. According to
counter-surveillance consultant James Atkinson, models from Nextel,
Samsung and the popular Motorola Razr are particularly vulnerable to
these remote software downloads.
"If a phone has in fact been modified to act as a bug, the only
way to counteract that is to either have a bugsweeper follow you around
24-7, which is not practical, or to peel the battery off the phone,"
Atkinson said, adding that some security-conscious corporate executives
make a habit of removing their cell phone’s battery when the unit is
not in use.
This is not the first time the FBI has commandeered built-in
microphones as listening devices. In a 2003 lawsuit, it was discovered
that the FBI was able to activate the microphones of automotive systems
such as OnStar and listen to passenger conversations without the
speakers knowing. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the
practice was not legal, but only because the technique prevents the
system from being used in an emergency.