Your mobile phone and you

On another note, I saw a post at the Charles Carroll Society page about how some government agencies have used “StingRay” tech to get into your mobile phone.

I am not overly concerned about this myself, since I am probably already being monitored by 17 national security agencies, and, hey!, this is just one more thing.  But … I found this interesting, because we are living in increasingly interesting times.

From the post:


What is StingRay?

StingRay devices or what geeky people call IMSI-catchers are a line of products made by Harris corporation and others that are fake cell phone towers.  Your phone is constantly trying to connect to any and all cell phone towers.  When you are connected, it shows up as “bars” on your phone.  “Bars” indicate how well you are connected to the nearest cell phone tower.   The Harris RayFish line of devices are fake towers.  They appear to your cell phone to be a real AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, etc. towers.  They trick your phone in to disconnecting from your normal cell phone tower and automatically connecting to the Harris fake cell phone towers.   You should think of this connection as a physical cable directly connected to your cell phone.   Once your cell phone has been connected to the cell tower, the StingRay device can monitor your calls, text, web usage, search terms and track the phone’s movements very accurately into a few feet even indoors.

Why do I care?

One issue is that if the government is tracking “bad Bob” across the street or in an airport your phone is also being tracked and hacked by the government.  You see all cell phones in the area will connect, not just “bad Bob.”  We know this is a fact because an FBI Agent under oath confirmed our worse suspicions. Special Agent Bradley S Morrison said under oath that the StingRay devices collect data “…from all wireless devices in the immediate area of the [device] … including those of innocent, non-target devices.”  We also know this by reviewing the documents Snowden leaked to the public that several capabilities exist to hack your cell phone.


Remember, when it comes to your tech and everything you do online or by phone, do not expect privacy.

I’ll turn on the moderation queue for this.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. anilwang says:

    Remember, when it comes to your tech and everything you do online or by phone, do not expect privacy.

    It’s even worse than that. Everything that you might have said can and will likely be available to come back to haunt you at some future date. You might not care now, since your indent your information to be public, but you might not always.

    I pity children these days. When I was a child, your most embarrassing mistakes were usually forgotten within a few years and anything you said and did in high school was forgotten by the time you left university. In the worse case, you could start fresh in a new city. Now, things you say in childhood or high school are available for everyone from your future employer, your future friends, your future spouse, and mere acquaintances. And it’s there no matter where you go. There’s no chance to start over.

    Many of our past saints like St Mary of Egypt and St Moses the Black would have a much harder time redeeming themselves in this modern age of no second chances.

    So be careful, and if you put something out there that will come back to haunt you, better make sure it’s something that you will never want to hide or renounce to anyone under any circumstance, such as our Catholic Faith.

  2. Dr. Edward Peters says:

    “Remember, when it comes to your tech and everything you do online or by phone, do not expect privacy.” I know this is a very, very, very slippery slope, but what’s the FBI gonna learn about me by listening to my phone? That I am late leaving work? That the kids want to go to Culvers? The donut shop is out of glazed? Again.

    God sees all. Heck, your Guardian Angels sees all (observable things, plus some). When I walk into Walmart, I assume I’m on camera. When I pull into a mall shopping lot, I assume I’m on someone’s camera. So, if with this tech the FBI can hear terrorists planning the next explosion or drug dealers planning a smuggling operation, why do I really care if they also know I’m planning a birthday party?

    Yes, yes, I feel the slope slipping beneath my feet, truly. But I say, conduct yourselves as Children of the Light, and who cares what the Forces of Darkness (assuming they are such, and they might well be) learn about you.

  3. benedetta says:

    Huh. Might be fun for someone, just for kicks, to also take a look, via FOI laws or patent filings or other public filings or documents, as to the programmers and other folks (presumably non government employees or even remote contractors) who played a role in trying out the prototype or tests for this kind of tech or similar capabilities, and how they carried out their verifications and tests etc. Also just curious, by any chance would Raytheon, or perhaps some university researchers/faculty, be associated with this tech design?

  4. APX says:

    It’s just best to assume that in this day and age, you have no privacy, except, hopefully, in the confessional. But even there, priests have warned people not to bring their cell phones into the confessional because people can remotely turn them on to transmit to another device such as a phone and or a computer recording audio. Kind of like portable bugs.

  5. thomas tucker says:

    There were good reasons for our Founding Fathers to put safeguards inot the Constitution to protect us, from our own government. Unfortuantely, we are long past paying attention to the Constitution as it was written.

  6. poohbear says:

    Too many of us think this is not a problem because we aren’t doing anything wrong/bad/illegal, so who cares if the government is listening. True, but who is to say in another year/month/week what we said today won’t be considered hate speech or illegal by our increasingly heavy handed government. We need to wake up to this possibility and fight things like this. Thank you Father for writing about this.

  7. chantgirl says:

    Under normal circumstances, I would be concerned but not too worried about this. However, under a totalitarian regime, this technology would be used in a terrible way. I can only imagine the carnage if Stalin or the SS had had such capabilities! In a modern scenario, I could see the Chinese government using this against dissidents and underground Catholics, perhaps pregnant women.

    In our own country, though, I think that someone who is interested in law would be concerned that the FBI is so keen on keeping the details of this tech secret, that they are forcing local prosecutors to drop cases rather than have to reveal their sources :

    I have also read of local governments being pressured to accept these devices from the Federal Government, and the local government officials being forced to sign confidentiality agreements without being briefed as to how the devices work or what their capabilities are.

  8. The Masked Chicken says:

    “Yes, yes, I feel the slope slipping beneath my feet, truly. But I say, conduct yourselves as Children of the Light, and who cares what the Forces of Darkness (assuming they are such, and they might well be) learn about you.”

    This is good advice and echoes what St. Teresa of Avila counseled – paraphrasing, “Conduct yourself in private in such a way that if it were made public, there would be no shame.”

    However, there is a difference between secrecy and privacy. If I just discovered a means of table-top cold fusion, I sure as heck would not want anyone to know about it until I had a chance to test it, have it privately reviewed, etc. To listen into a conversation like that comes close to corporate espionage and who is to say that that hasn’t happened to force the hands of some businesses?

    Police have not been forthcoming about Stingray usage and have, it seems, even been commanded by the FBI to keep its usage a secret. The tide may be turning, however. Last year, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that such devices are unconstitutional, if used for bulk information gathering:

    “”While a person may voluntarily convey personal information to a business or other entity for personal purposes, such disclosure cannot reasonably be considered to be disclosure for all purposes to third parties not involved in that transaction,” he wrote.

    “Requiring a cell phone user to turn off the cell phone just to assure privacy from governmental intrusion that can reveal a detailed and intimate picture of the user’s life places an unreasonable burden on the user to forego necessary use of his cell phone, a device now considered essential by much of the populace,” he continued.”

    There is no way around this technology that I can think of, except one-time use burn phones and, even then, they can track your location while you are using the phone. Well, there is another way around it – spoof your signal, so that it seems to come from a different location. This spoof would counter their spoof of a false cell tower, so that, in essence, nothing is what it seems in the communication chain, but anyone who knows how to spoof a cell phone signal isn’t going to be intimidated by Stingray technology to start with. In other words, I doubt police could use Stingray against the NSA or the CIA.

    The Chicken

  9. benedetta says:

    It’s true Dr. Peters, that no normal person would care whether I am ordering chocolate or glazed, or for that matter, that I happen to be on my way to pray for my local 40 days slot, or even that I just returned from coffee with the parochial vicar of my parish whereupon I queried him as to whether a group of us might be permitted to form a prolife outreach and committee at our parish seeing as how although it is an obvious moral imperative for any humanist in our times to protect human life yet inexplicably there is no prolife outreach in the parish even at this late hour…

    In theory, the M.O. goes like this: whomever is in the possession of such means to surveil your pizza order, the route you take to your child’s physical therapy clinic, or what time you normally arrive at Sunday Mass, and which parish, apparently is only interested in these factoids in order to accost you in some manner identifiable to you and your online or cellular presence, and thereby let you know that your every word is being monitored, and, for you to then be triggered to waves of anxiety not knowing who, or what, cares about which donut you are ordering, or, what they are trying to do towards you, now or in future, or further, what they have told persons appearing in public to make them seem so angry at the local target that they at least seem to be interested in creating an apprehension of imminent assault.

    I imagine the effect of this might be to, cancel your son’s physical therapy appointment, forget following up with that parochial vicar about the important matter, stop going to 40 days, and in general make one’s life a living hell, and then creation of fear in the hearts of loved ones and friends and bystanders by extension. It matters not, apparently, to the ones in possession of this technology and the apparent time and means to orchestrate such strange goings on, in the name of only God knows what, that the would be donut shop patron really isn’t remotely involved in anything that anyone would care to know about. I’m sure if they get information in the process that they can use and/or sell, such as when the next outdoor Eucharistic procession will be, or, which park the kids are gathering at this Friday, then, all the better for them, apparently, but, I think at the end of the day the real purpose is to be a constant, active, looming, threatening presence.

  10. Reason #223 why I leave my phone off more than I have it on. Basically, I keep it on when I am working at a client– that’s it.

    Regardless, no one will be able to figure out where I am going to Mass or what time I will arrive by monitoring my phone, even if I leave it on. I usually don’t know myself where or when I will land until I actually get there. I usually keep my phone off on Sundays in any case. I only get annoyed when I turn it on and see some frantic e-mail about work from someone who is unable to work on a Sunday.

  11. A Cellphone is, in essence, a mobile audio and video broadcast station. It is listening for your voice even if you are not in-call. Most of them are also universal Turing machines, which means the only surefire way to tell what it’s going to do is to watch carefully what it does— so, do you have a debugger running in your phone to tell you what it is doing? Ergo, the best way to make sure it’s doing nothing when you’d rather it didn’t is to remove the battery — to which end I hope yours isn’t an iPhone.

    Anyways, all this may be an issue if you bring your cellphone with you into confession (on either side of the grille).

  12. gramma10 says:

    Nowhere to Run— Nowhere to Hide

    We are watching the destruction of our once great country—-right before our very eyes.
    Shouldn’t we be doing something more than blogging and complaining?
    Yes, of course praying…..but in the past they took up arms, right?
    What kind of “arms” can we take up today?
    I just think we should do something to stop this. What?
    Well, perhaps we need to be very very active in the next presidential election.
    Each day it seems that another thread is ripped out of the beautiful tapestry that makes up America. So very sad.

  13. benedetta says:

    some guy on the street, If one isn’t doing anything one is ashamed of anyway, in terms of how they go about living their lives more or less, why then, given this is all on the scene and active, try to go dark? I would instead bring the iphone right into the confessional, the rest room, and everywhere else. Let them listen. Perhaps our lives will edify one or other to have perhaps a very first opportunity to know a believer and comprehend Mercy on His terms and not so many lies and other things said about it in destruction, and bring them into the one true Faith. In the meantime one can continue to pray.

    If all that is of concern is when to put on the next “black mass”, and where, where to propose vile shoot in the heart legislation for babies about to be born to establish even more abortion of youth as if what is there is not enough, where (what parish, which media pretense) to throw foundational money around, and to terrorize as in incite fear in a vain hope that this will discourage believers from the basic practice of the faith, then? As they say on the interwebs, “haters gonna hate”. One just hopes it isn’t quite such a foregone conclusion, for their sakes especially. They only want to know where you are at any given moment, and signal to you that you are recognized, by means of their surveilling your devices. It can be a bummer but it’s not the end of the world, it doesn’t kill, joy.

  14. Dear Benedetta,

    Specifically what I mean is: a priest who brings a live cell-phone (or other wireless-connected device) with him while hearing confessions (say, to read his Office when it’s quiet) may have already broken the Seal, though perhaps un-knowingly. [No. Wrong.] To be sure, the probability that any particular live cell-phone has been compromised may be small, but it is sufficiently plausible, I think, to warrant caution.

    A penitent who brings a live cell-phone with him into the confessional should similarly expect that he may be subject to eavesdropping, even if the priest himself is perfectly faithful to the Seal.

  15. benedetta says:

    some guy on the street,

    What I am discussing is not mere eavesdropping and something more nefarious.

    Be that as it may, as others point out here, God already sees and hears all. And God actually intrudes in to surprisingly make known what He is aware is happening, however in a completely kind, good, and encouraging way. I.e., God wants to know where the Eucharistic procession will be happening in order to refer more souls to attend…

    For some it only makes sense to assume that every word is being recorded by one method or another, as well as one’s movements/gps coordinates, at all times. Yet that is not enough to make me not bring my cell phone with me into the church. As a matter of fact there are times when I have need of it there, in the sanctuary, for a variety of uses which can come in handy. As to the priest and the seal I presume he is acting in accord with that at all times given the gravity of priestly responsibilities there.

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