Gadgets

How Our Smartphones Spy On Us, And What You Can Do To Avoid It

As a Bitcoiner, being aware of all the ways technology is used to spy on you is paramount to good opsec.

This is an editorial opinion by Anthony Feliciano, a Bitcoin event organizer and consultant.

It’s no secret we live in a mass surveillance state. The technology created to help us be a more energy efficient and productive society, is now our greatest threat to our privacy and self-sovereign well-being. Take a look around — from smart refrigerators to smart light bulbs, nanny cams to smart TVs, computers, Ring, Google Nest, Alexa and our smartphones are all capable of being used to spy on us, and that’s just the list of equipment that is doing it before you step outside of your house. They’re all equipped with cameras, sensors and microphones that watch and monitor our every move, emotion and action. Many people will point to the Patriot Act, when the US government began to spy on its own citizen’s communications, under the guise of “national security.”

This will be a two article series, starting with the piece that explains “why” — why you should begin to formulate an opt out plan when it comes to your smartphone, even more so if you are a Bitcoiner. The “why” doesn’t necessarily apply to only Bitcoiners but for anyone looking to regain their privacy, like journalists and/or people who live in oppressive regimes.

The second part will be the “how” — I’ll provide you with tools and options to help you begin your opt out journey while still being able to use Bitcoin.

How Cellular Service Providers Spy On Us:

I’ll start with cellular providers and talk about some of the tools at their disposal that are currently employed. Some of these terms and tools you probably have heard before, but you might not be sure how they work. The important takeaway to remember is that the information captured from these tools can be subject to subpoena by lawyers or government agencies.

  • Carrier-branded smartphones: These are the phones you “lease” from any carrier on a month to month payment program. They come preloaded with a ton of apps that are carrier branded and cannot be removed. Most of the apps are carrier specific, and log the data you enter into them as well as tracking other apps.

AT&T Secure Family and the Google Play App are two examples — “Find your family, control your child’s screen time and manage their phone use.”

Key features include:

  • This app may share data with third parties.
  • This app may collect location and personal information.
  • Data is encrypted in transit.
  • Data cannot be deleted.
  • Mobile OS: A mobile OS is the operating system your smartphone uses, and is like a version of Windows, macOS or Ubuntu on your personal computer. Today the smartphone market is dominated by two players. Google and Apple. By agreeing to the “terms and conditions” to use Google or Apple services, we give access to every aspect of our lives, both private and public, to them. When people complain about Big Tech spying on us, it’s really our own fault since we don’t have to use any of these services.

*Note: I will be discussing two projects to help Android users with their opt out plan. Sorry Apple users, you will have to wait until it gets easier to jailbreak an iPhone.

  • Apps: Too many of them are on our smartphones. When was the last time you downloaded an app that didn’t need access to every part of your phone to work? Nearly every app we download needs access to our contacts, phone, texts, photos, GPS location etc. All with the emphasis on “collecting information for better customer experience.” With the rise of malware apps targeting cryptocurrency users, shouldn’t we be paying more attention to the apps we install and the permissions given to them, since we too have Bitcoin and LN apps that reside on our phones as well?
  • Trilateration: GPS. Our cell phones constantly send out signals looking to receive “acknowledgment” signals from nearby cell towers. The more towers our smartphones connect with, the better the accuracy to pinpoint your location to within feet.

*Note: Not even turning off your GPS is foolproof. That is because our smartphones are still connected to nearby towers via the radio inside them. This won’t pinpoint your exact location but just enough to provide the necessary information as to your whereabouts at a particular time.

  • SIM swap attacks: This is when a scammer is able to pose as you (through social engineering), and calls your cell service provider to trick them into porting over your cell number to a SIM in their possession. The goal is to receive one-time access codes to your accounts. In Bitcoin terms, the targets here are usually centralized exchanges. This was the case when a scammer used a sim-swap attack to receive a one-time code and withdraw the victim’s cryptocurrency. There are many other such horror stories involving SIM swap attacks with the goal of cleaning out someone’s crypto accounts.
  • Stingrays: Physical hardware used by government agencies around the world. The premise behind the attack is that Stingrays operate as “fake” cell phone towers by providing a stronger signal, so that your smartphone believes it is talking to a nearby tower, when in fact, some agency is operating as the man-in-the -middle, recording all data (text, calls, and data) transmitted from the person of interest. The major issue with this, anyone who happens to wander by the intended target has all of their information captured as well. Everyone in the vicinity’s privacy is at risk when this tactic is used.
  • Social, political or economic injustice rallies: If there was ever more of an example on why you should use a burner phone or privacy focused device for these events, it was the fallout from the Canadian Truckers Rally and the events of January 6, 2021. In the months after the events, governments worked with Big Tech to track down and arrest a slew of people, just by viewing their social media feeds or subpoenaing cell phone records from carriers. Those cell phone records were used to determine if you were anywhere near such protests in order to prosecute individuals. I must stress this again, never bring your daily phone to any such rally ever. Always bring a backup phone you can ditch or destroy no matter what.

How To Begin To Opt Out

To begin, head over to CalyxOS or GrapheneOS to do some light reading. These two projects are similar in nature and offer a great alternative mobile OS that is free of Google services and all the tracking included. Their respective websites have a list of compatible devices and installation guides. The two projects have grown the most in popularity among Bitcoiners. I will post links to apps I use for privacy as well as Bitcoin and LN apps that you can use in conjunction with a de-Googled phone, so you can still use Bitcoin without all the spying and tracking.

Privacy is a right, we should all remember, and not take it lightly or sacrifice it for convenience. Nothing is 100% secure and private, unless you are planning to live off the grid in the mountains. If your wife isn’t thrilled about that idea, at least begin to explore an opt out plan when it comes to communications and Bitcoin.

This is a guest post by Anthony Feliciano. Opinions expressed are entirely their own and do not necessarily reflect those of BTC Inc or Bitcoin Magazine.

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

Leave a Comment