American and British spy agencies have been aggressively developing tools to hack smartphones, government whistleblower Edward Snowden told BBC’s “Panorama” in an interview aired Monday night.
But intelligence officials aren’t necessarily interested in monitoring private communications on the phone. They want to use the device to take photos or eavesdrop.
"They want to own your phone instead of you,” Snowden insisted.
And smartphone owners have “very little” they can do to stop these officials from cracking their device.
For the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), the British digital spy agency, all it takes is a well-placed encrypted text message to get into the smartphone it wants to manipulate. The message is even invisible to the user, making it extraordinarily difficult to not succumb to the hack.
GCHQ has dubbed these capabilities the “Smurf Suite,” named after the Belgian cartoon characters that live in mushroom-shaped houses.
“Dreamy Smurf is the power management tool which means turning your phone on and off with you knowing," Snowden said.
"Nosey Smurf is the 'hot mic' tool,” he continued. “For example if it's in your pocket, [GCHQ] can turn the microphone on and listen to everything that's going on around you — even if your phone is switched off because they've got the other tools for turning it on.”
"Tracker Smurf is a geo-location tool which allows [GCHQ] to follow you with a greater precision than you would get from the typical triangulation of cellphone towers."
Another tool, Paranoid Smurf, is actually a defensive mechanism, Snowden explained. It’s designed to make the other tools undetectable.
“If you wanted to take the phone in to get it serviced because you saw something strange going on or you suspected something was wrong, it makes it much more difficult for any technician to realise that anything's gone amiss,” Snowden said.
While the tactics described were mostly GCHQ jargon, Snowden described the agency as “to all intents and purposes a subsidiary of the NSA [National Security Agency].”
“[The NSA] provide technology, they provide tasking and direction as to what [GCHQ] should go after.”
The NSA has also spent nearly $1 billion on a similar program, Snowden said.
The two agencies have focused on these efforts as criminals and terrorists increasingly use smartphones to plan and execute crimes.
“They say, and in many cases this is true, that they're not going to read your email, for example, but they can and if they did you would never know," Snowden added.