Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Mobile Phone Spies

The protests in Iran against the fake election results have brought attention to the way governments spy on text messages and sometimes phone calls to and from mobile telephones. Iranian police spilled the beans by arresting more than 100 people based on text messages sent from their phones. They also made their efforts obvious by slowing down the Internet the day after the election, when the fake results were announced. According to BBC News, “Because Iran is effectively reading every message, this results in an inevitable slow down of traffic.”

It turns out, though, that governments everywhere routinely intercept text messages, voice messages, and cellular phone calls. And to a limited extent, they can track people’s movements by the movements of the phone, anytime the phone is turned on. Protesters in Iran have had to develop the habit of turning their phones off when they go into certain neighborhoods where stations have been set up just for the purpose of recording phone movements.

In the United States, the NSA made headlines five years ago with their strategy of tracking the movements of everyone who has a cellular phone. And they are still doing it. The theory, apparently, is that if your phone is in the same neighborhood as the phone of a known foreign agent, at the same time, it makes it more likely that you are some kind of spy too. It’s not much of a theory, and by all accounts the NSA has had terrible difficulty getting any useful information out of it, but the mere fact that they keep trying may make you want to shut off your cell phone sometimes.

This is a tough idea for most Americans to relate to, but it is quickly becoming common knowledge in Tehran, where mobile phone arrests are made right out on the street for everyone to see. The citizen reporters there know not to alert the world directly from their phones if they can help it. The mobile phone spies are watching.