How easily the world’s governments can hack your smartphone, according to Edward Snowden

Say hello to Big Brother.
Say hello to Big Brother.
Image: Reuters/Dado Ruvic
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Sending just one text, Edward Snowden claims, enables the UK and the US to furtively take over someone’s smartphone.

The former intelligence worker and controversial whistleblower told the BBC yesterday (Oct. 5) that Britain’s security agency GCHQ has a sophisticated technology allowing it to gain near-total access to a smartphone by sending it an encrypted text message. He added the technology is provided by the American National Security Agency, which gives ”tasking and direction” to its British counterpart and uses a similar program itself in the US that costs $1 billion.

“[They send] a specially crafted message that’s texted to your number like any other text message, but when it arrives at your phone it’s hidden from you,” Snowden said. “It doesn’t display. You paid for it but whoever controls the software owns the phone.”

Once in, agencies can allegedly access many functions of the phone—reading messages, looking at web history, and even taking secret photos with the camera—without the owner’s knowledge.

Snowden said GCHQ’s technology, a collection of tools dubbed “Smurf Suite” after the Belgian cartoons, includes the following:

  • “Dreamy Smurf,” a power management tool that turns your phone on and off without knowing.
  • “Tracker Smurf,” a geo-location tool that allows the agency to follow you with a “greater precision” than what cellphone tower triangulation allows.
  • “Nosey Smurf,” a listening tool that lets the agency hear through the microphone, even if the phone is off.
  • “Paranoid Smurf,” a self-protection tool that makes it difficult for any user or technician to realize the phone has been hacked.

According to Snowden, the software is intended to help the agencies target suspected terrorists and other serious criminals such as pedophiles. His remarks yesterday are consistent with his lawyer’s claim, earlier this year, that Snowden “never uses an iPhone” because iPhones have software that can covertly gather information.

The UK government—which has condemned Snowden in the past for fracturing global security and putting lives at risk—refused to comment on the matter, saying only that GCHQ’s work is “carried out in accordance with a strict legal and policy framework.”