Michael's Dispatches

Watching You

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01 December 2011

ComputerWorld recently interviewed me about smartphone security.  My work happens in dangerous places where a working knowledge of phone security is essential.

The reality is that if you have a cell phone, many people can track you.

Please read:

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November 30, 2011 - 11:36 A.M.

Smartphone pocket spy tracking by drug cartels at Mexican border war zone?

Darlene Storm
Security Is Sexy

Michael Yon travels with U.S. combat troops overseas and has learned much about smartphones as pocket spies with actionable intelligence that is trackable and could mean life or death. While continuing to discuss smartphones as pocket spies with actionable intelligence that can be tracked, Yon pointed out that:

Smartphones are computers.  Software is hacked every day. The speaker and camera can be turned on without a warning.  This also is possible with normal landlines.  The phone speaker can remotely activated without the phone ringing.

Chinese hackers were said to be turning on webcams and secretly transmitting.  Information flows into and out of smartphones like water flows in rainforests.  Information practically evaporates.  Spyware can be installed. Wifi and Bluetooth are open doors.

Another layer can be achieved with special gear that intelligence agencies, various militaries, and others use.

During a mission in Iraq, a signal to a "hot" cell phone was picked up. The phone was in a mosque but there were loads of men in the mosque.  Many had phones that were not hot. Our people moved in closer, parked outside and started chatting with people. When the hot cell phone happened to pass by, our guys could see the target. They quietly took the one guy around the corner and loaded him up. It's possible that other Iraqis did not realize he had been snagged.

Yet sometimes unlocking the actionable intelligence, confidential info, off a target's smartphone is less tech-centered and more brute force. Yon gave this example:

Imagine a Mexican journalist with confidential informants. She gets picked up along with her smartphone, and the cartel (or whoever) beats the password out of her. Now they've got the keys to the kingdom without infiltrating a phone company. A common criminal can do this.

Yon may start to report from a new war zone at the Mexican border which he believes is a a greater threat to the USA than al Qaeda. If he does, drug cartels may consider him a threat and try to target him via smartphone pocket spy actionable intelligence.

You wrote, "The United States faces greater threats at home than we face in Afghanistan. The Mexican border, for instance, is being described as a war zone. People have been warning about it for years. Over time, I have seriously considered changing focus to the more proximate and bigger threats."

How/why do you regard it as a bigger threat?

Michael Yon: Afghanistan per se poses no threat to the United States. Zero. We attacked Afghanistan because al Qaeda was there, and as follow-on we went for the Taliban. Other threats exists in the region, but if we were to attack every place that has housed even al Qaeda, we would go for the UAE, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Germany, Florida. . . long list. We are nation-building in Afghanistan. Yes, there are al Qaeda affiliates in some places but there are AQ and other terrorists in many countries. We saw OBL was living in Pakistan.

If our quest is only to hunt al Qaeda, Afghanistan is just one of many places they have kicked up. If we abandon Afghanistan, my guess is that it will devolve into civil war. The Taliban and others will inherit significant areas, but that is of little consequence to us directly. The bigger concern of course is Pakistan.

Mexico is far more important due to proximity. If Mexico were in Southeast Asia, it would be of no more concern than is Vietnam. There was a time when many Americans believed that a failure in Vietnam would domino to the demise of the United States. Vietnam is now a great place to vacation where Americans are welcome.

I am next door to Vietnam in communist Laos. I can see the Mekong River flowing by Vientiane. Communist flags are hanging everywhere. I am in the Sabai Dee coffee shop on the Rue Francious Ngin and they are playing American music. My iPhone picks up the WiFi. Vietnam became communist, so did Laos, and the world kept turning. I recommend Laos and Vietnam as travel destinations. The dominos fell and it hardly mattered.

Mexico is different. Due to proximity, our histories, cultures and futures are deeply entwined. We are in this together. We can walk away from Afghanistan as we did Vietnam and Laos, but not Mexico. If we walk away from Afghanistan, Afghanistan will suffer and no telling what will happen with Pakistan. The more we try to ignore the problems in Mexico, the more we all will suffer.

You are considering to move from covering our troops in Afghanistan to covering the Mexico border 'war zone.'

Do you agree with the comment posted that "If you start telling the truth about that situation, the Cartels will perceive you as a threat and move against you. The Mexican government will perceive you as a threat and move against you. The US government will perceive you as a threat and move against you."

Michael Yon: Billions of dollars are flowing about. Writing is dangerous business. Some have argued that in many places writing is far more dangerous than soldiering. This was almost certainly true for Iraqi journalists, and might be true for Afghans and Mexicans, or anyone else who enters the bloody fight armed with a pen.

In one comment it was implied that the cartels know who and where certain people are. Do you believe the cartel are using smartphones to track persons of interest/enemies? If so, do you have any verification of that?

Michael Yon: It's best to assume that rich and powerful cartel leaders will have taken pains to infiltrate phone companies. If I were a billionaire drug dealer, I might try to buy a phone company, but in any case would certainly invest in tracking gear for which a section would be devoted to tracking enemy phones.  I'm not saying this is occurring. I have no knowledge of this. I am only saying that it makes sense.  A powerful enemy would try to infiltrate or hack into all organizations wherein huge and useful data mines are available. Phone companies would be prime targets for human infiltration and computer hacking.

Do you believe any of the biometrics at the border, facial recognition, fingerprinting, has done anything helpful to stop the flood of trouble at our nation's border with Mexico?

Michael Yon: I do not know. Biometrics were helpful in Iraq and are increasingly working in Afghanistan. One day in Iraq, a bunch of men were applying to become police. One applicant was wanted and when he was entered into the system, it flagged within seconds. Our Soldiers quietly took him to a different room where he was peacefully detained.

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  • This commment is unpublished.
    George · 7 years ago
    Carrier IQ which logs all keystrokes, and other data, on all Android phones has been unmasked in the last day or two for the commercial spying software that it is. Steve Jobs pointed this out quite a while ago. If something like this can be installed out of the box what other rootkits are in these phones?
  • This commment is unpublished.
    George · 7 years ago
    Let me correct my comment about "all Android phones".
    Gizmodo claims that these phones;
    All Verizon phones
    All Nokia handsets
    All Windows Phones
    All Vodafone Phones
    All O2 Phones
    Google Nexus phones (Google Nexus One, Nexus S, Galaxy Nexus)
    Original Xoom are clean.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Mark · 7 years ago
    People are welcome to hack my phone, all they would get is a picture of my phone and me wittering on about health and safety

    Enough to put anyone to sleep
  • This commment is unpublished.
    whamprod · 7 years ago
    @ George.... I saw the Gizmodo article. It it is true (and sometimes Gizmodo has a tendency to hyperventilate, so it [I]might[/I] be true, or maybe its an exaggeration...), then it is really obnoxious. I would not recommend any Android products to anybody anyway, but that would seal the deal.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Mary · 7 years ago
    The threat from Mexico is that the global jihad has allied with the Mexican cartel to smack down the U.S. with drugs, and to smuggle drugs, weapons, and jihadists into the U.S. If you don't get that then please don't report on the situation. We don't need anymore tagyya (Mohammad's "war is deceit") from our own media.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Guest · 7 years ago
    Oh really tooooo much bullshit, Michael... So...
    1. Battery was not draining because of "pinging" :-) That's bullshit. You do not actually need to ping the phone - it pings the network itself. The most probable cause was the phone was searching for the network (it takes a lot of battery power). TRXs (cell towers) placed close to the border very often transmit at reduced power as radio waves know no borders and your neighbor's telco should not provide services on you territory.
    2. Locating the phone using TRXs does not give you actionable strike location. Error margins in rural areas will be huge - at least a hundred meters if you use signal shift and triangulation (not possible in all the circumstances). Though thirty phones in the middle of nowhere will certainly rise eyebrows. For a strike location you need to use direction finders and even those things are not terribly accurate.
    3. If you're afraid of being spied upon watching where your phone is always a good idea - breaking a phone takes minutes. Changing phone might be a good idea but... There are call and travel patterns - you do not need to know someone's phone number to know who he is.
    • This commment is unpublished.
      Michael Yon · 7 years ago
      Guest --

      Please tone it down. If the potential enemy knows your general location out in the desert even within a few kilometers, they might be able to pinpoint you in seconds.

      As example, there are many mountains on parts of the Iranian border. There are military positions in those mountains that I have seen. Lots of those have lots of antennas. If your phone is detected, it would not take much for a radio call to one of the outposts to start scanning for you with binos, or just fly up with a helicopter or fixed-wing and locate you. Further, if they know your general travel direction, they might easily conclude which choke points/river crossings, etc., that you must cross through or over to continue your route.

      But that's just my experience in real wars.

      Michael Yon
      • This commment is unpublished.
        Guest again · 7 years ago
        Toning it down - my fault :)

        1. Yeah, only general direction is possible. But what's even worse is GPS, if someone is (mistakenly) logged into a location based service then it would give quite precise GPS coordinates. Instantaneously actionable case.
        2. And operational patterns are another threat. You can pick up certain IDs from the air. Then matching known operations with IDs you can establish rules - who are the leaders or certain types of specialists. Then you go inside the country with a pretty much common equipment and you may learn what these IDs do before the operations - e.g. where they travel to prepare for an op. And voila - you have advanced warnings if anything goes your way.

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