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The NSA and the GCHQ have had the ability to spy on people’s phones for years. But now the technology that allows them to track you through phone data is available to other governments. As long as they can afford the system, they can easily track almost anyone with a phone, anywhere in the world.
Surveillance Systems for Sale
Companies that create online surveillance systems are making them available to any government that can pay. With one of these systems, a government can use phone data to track people. And it can track them no matter where they are in the world. This works because cellular networks have to track their users so they know where to route calls and messages. The surveillance technology just piggy backs on this phone data to track user locations in real time.
Surveillance systems makers usually collect this phone data for marketing. They create travel profiles, for instance, so that hotels, airlines and tour agencies can target people. But now surveillance companies are offering their technology to government who want to spy on people. They have even made their systems more manageable so that governments who do not have high technical abilities can use them. The systems are toned down, but can still use phone data to very accurately track users in any country.
Dozens of governments around the world are already using surveillance systems. And more may soon be purchasing these phone data systems to keep up. This is a very scary thought, especially when it is made so easy for them. Pretty much all they would have to do to spy on someone would be to enter a phone number. From there the system does its magic. It goes through phone data from cellular networks and finds the cell tower that the phone is using. It’s that easy for the system to use phone data to find almost anyone in the world. Of course it’s not pinpoint accurate, but a few blocks, or a few miles in the sticks, is enough to be really creepy. With an approximate location, the systems can gain a certain level of control. Contact lists and stored files can be accessed. Phone mics can be turned on and conversations recorded. Internet traffic and phone calls can be intercepted.
Huge Privacy Implications for Phone Data
Not everyone can just go online and check out a phone data surveillance system. They do cost quite a pretty penny. But aside from governments, there are several entities that could afford such a system. Cybercriminal organizations and hacker groups are two examples. Adding in authoritarian regimes gives us a chilling picture of who might be tracking us. The privacy dangers of this technology being sold to any one of these groups is already bad enough. Together they pose a potentially greater threat than we have witnessed with GCHQ and NSA spying.
Americans are to some extent protected from NSA spying by the law. The same goes for British citizens and the GCHQ. And they certainly have recourse, as we have seen in the past year’s protests against mass spying. But the boundaries of spying on people in other countries is not clearly defined. And less high profile countries and secret organizations can get away with spying on people unnoticed. Moreover, there is no body with the legal authority to track these abuses or to prosecute those who commit them.
The sale of these phone data systems is not regulated. Some surveillance technologies are limited for local use, as is the case in the US. But there are many providers that operate outside of the US where there is no way to restrict how or to whom these systems are sold. The FCC can try to find out if any illegal sales are happening on US soil. But outside of that, the trail will grow cold.
Possibly the worst aspect of these phone data tracking systems is that they cannot easily be disabled. Most smartphones these days provide options for users who do not want to share location data. But phone data surveillance is not so easy to shut off. They are made to be undetectable, and sometimes even use malware to force phones to release location and other phone data for tracking. And when they tap into carrier databases, they open up direct access to phone data from the networks themselves. This allows them to get the location information regardless of any privacy protection that users set up on their phones.