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Editorial: Your Cellphone Could Betray You

Saturday, August 30, 2014
Well before the dawn of cellphones, Joseph Heller wrote this in Catch-22: “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.” His novel was about absurdities in a time of declared war, but our era of uneasy peace doesn’t lack matters to fret about.

One of the latest: You could be betrayed by something very close to you. Make that extremely close. Not a spouse, a friend, or a jealous lover — we mention the latter for the benefit of John Grisham readers. The potential betrayer is your cellphone.

This newspaper recently ran a Washington Post story that revealed that surveillance companies are taking advantage of security weaknesses in global cellular networks. They are, according to the Post, “offering governments across the world the ability to track the movements of almost anybody who carries a cellphone.” With revelations about the NSA, many are already feeling less secure about communications, but the story warned that surveillance is spreading widely. Add small governments, or what used to be called tin-pot dictators, and potentially, criminal gangs, to the list of trackers.

According to the Post, the tracking systems can locate a cellphone user within a city block, or within a few miles in rural areas. “I’m worried about foreign governments, and I’m even more worried about non-governments,’’ said Jon Peha, former White House scientific adviser and chief technologist for the Federal Communications Commission. “Which is not to say I’d be happy about the NSA using this method to collect location data. But better them than the Iranians.”

The tracking systems aren’t fool-proof, but the Post said they can locate people 70 percent of the time, by accessing something called the SS7 system, “a global network that cellular carriers use to communicate with one another when directing calls, texts and Internet data.” The system wasn’t designed for security — it was once controlled by just a few large carriers — but now thousands of companies use it, making the system more vulnerable to exploitation. Reportedly, fixing the security weakness could cost billions, and a fix won’t be easy, as one change could lead to other problems — something individual technology users can appreciate.

The FCC is investigating the issue, but government oversight has its limitations, partly because some elements of the government have been pushing the legal boundaries of domestic surveillance. Cellphone companies could be pressured to improve security, but individual consumers struggle to even reach a human being when attempting to contact them. Where is a crusading congressman when you need one? In any case, a national discussion on technology and privacy can’t begin soon enough.

Some consumers — we are thinking mostly of older ones — take matters into their own hands by forgetting to bring their cellphones along with them, or to keep them charged. Cellphones, like puppies, call for a 24/7 commitment.

The younger generation smirks at their cellphone-challenged elders, but those who grew up with pay phones as their only mobile devices have, for the moment, an accidental — and highly effective — defense against a technological threat. No cellphone, no tracking.

The generational divide aside, this latest revelation is a reminder that as we are plugged into our devices, they are also plugged into us.

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