TELECOM Digest OnLine - Sorted: FBI Taps Cell Phone Mic as Eavesdropping Tool

FBI Taps Cell Phone Mic as Eavesdropping Tool

Monty Solomon (
Sun, 3 Dec 2006 03:24:48 -0500

By Declan McCullagh

Story last modified Fri Dec 01 18:46:27 PST 2006

The FBI appears to have begun using a novel form of electronic
surveillance in criminal investigations: remotely activating a mobile
phone's microphone and using it to eavesdrop on nearby conversations.

The technique is called a "roving bug," and was approved by top U.S.
Department of Justice officials for use against members of a New York
organized crime family who were wary of conventional surveillance
techniques such as tailing a suspect or wiretapping him.

Nextel cell phones owned by two alleged mobsters, John Ardito and his
attorney Peter Peluso, were used by the FBI to listen in on nearby
conversations. The FBI views Ardito as one of the most powerful men in
the Genovese family, a major part of the national Mafia.

The surveillance technique came to light in an opinion published this
week by U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan. He ruled that the "roving
bug" was legal because federal wiretapping law is broad enough to
permit eavesdropping even of conversations that take place near a
suspect's cell phone.

Kaplan's opinion said that the eavesdropping technique "functioned
whether the phone was powered on or off." Some handsets can't be fully
powered down without removing the battery; for instance, some Nokia
models will wake up when turned off if an alarm is set.

While the Genovese crime family prosecution appears to be the first
time a remote-eavesdropping mechanism has been used in a criminal
case, the technique has been discussed in security circles for years.
The U.S. Commerce Department's security office warns that "a cellular
telephone can be turned into a microphone and transmitter for the
purpose of listening to conversations in the vicinity of the phone."
An article in the Financial Times last year said mobile providers can
"remotely install a piece of software on to any handset, without the
owner's knowledge, which will activate the microphone even when its
owner is not making a call."

Nextel and Samsung handsets and the Motorola Razr are especially
vulnerable to software downloads that activate their microphones, said
James Atkinson, a counter-surveillance consultant who has worked
closely with government agencies. "They can be remotely accessed and
made to transmit room audio all the time," he said. "You can do that
without having physical access to the phone."

Because modern handsets are miniature computers, downloaded software
could modify the usual interface that always displays when a call is
in progress. The spyware could then place a call to the FBI and
activate the microphone -- all without the owner knowing it happened.
(The FBI declined to comment on Friday.)

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