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FBI can remotely activate microphones on Android devices using spyware, says WSJ

News by Andrew Kameka on Friday August 02, 2013.

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Hackers have developed tools to enable the FBI to spy on people by activating their smartphones, reports the Wall Street Journal. According to its unnamed sources and court documents obtained by the paper, law enforcement agencies have the technology that allows them to spy on suspects without gaining physical access to the device.

The Wall Street Journal reports:

"The FBI develops some hacking tools internally and purchases others from the private sector. With such technology, the bureau can remotely activate the microphones in phones running Google Inc.'s Android software to record conversations, one former U.S. official said. It can do the same to microphones in laptops without the user knowing, the person said."

While the thought of the government being able to remotely spy on anyone at any given time raises alarming concerns about Big Brother intrusions, especially in light of the recent NSA PRISM scandal, key qualifiers are left out of the story. For one, the government has always been able to spy on criminal suspects using technology, so there needs to be more specifics shared about how this particular hack affects users and how to avoid the watchful eye.

The Journal mentions in the article that law enforcement agencies distribute "spyware to computers and phones through email or web links." 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.

At the moment, there's no reason to believe that the FBI can indiscriminately listen in on any Android user. Government agencies have long had tools to listen in on conversations, so it's theoretically possible that something like that could happen if it doesn't already exist. However, the likelihood of a backdoor existing to make all Android devices susceptible to that kind of spying is very low.

source: Wall Street Journal

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Andrew Kameka
Andrew is based in Miami, Florida.

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