Spy-Proofing Your Mobile Devices

Category: Privacy

James Comey is terribly concerned that he won’t be able to get Apple or Google to crack your phone’s password for him. The FBI Director is calling upon Congress for a “regulatory or legislative fix” that will preserve law enforcement’s ability to coerce the cooperation of tech companies in searching your computers, phones, and other personal effects.

Why Does the FBI Want the Keys to Your Phone?

First Apple, and now Google have taken some bold steps to keep government from snooping into your mobile devices. With the release of iOS 8 and Android 5.0 (Lollipop), encryption is enabled by default during the device activation process. A user must choose a password, which is known only to the user and stored only on the device. Because they will not have that password, neither the device maker nor the service provider can unlock data stored on the device -- even if they are served with a search warrant.

Perhaps you thought this was always the case, but alas, no. For those with Android smartphones or tablets, encryption has been available since the Android 3.0 (Honeycomb) release in 2011, but it wasn't turned on automatically. You had the option to encrypt your device, or leave the information stored there unencrypted. The difference with Android 5.0 is that encryption is enabled right out of the box.

Spy-Proof Your Phone

For Apple users, it's a bit more complicated. Until the recent release of iOS 8, Apple maintained a back door in its operating system that allowed it to fulfill law enforcement “requests” for access to data on your device, even if it was encrypted. If your iPhone or iPad was seized, the cops did not have to spend time and money breaking its password. They would just get a court order and ship it to Apple along with your phone.

Requests from law enforcement for such assistance have been skyrocketing in recent years. It’s small wonder that tech makers are fed up and eager to get out of the search-and-seizure game. But FBI DIrector Comey doesn’t want to let them go because they are often the only hope of getting incriminating evidence.

Police need a valid search warrant to search and seize your personal effects, according to the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. If the effects they seek are in a locked room, they may bring in a locksmith to open it but they cannot force you to produce the key, according to the Fifth Amendment. Apple and Google are getting out of the locksmith business.

Cry Me a River

See also New Silent Phone Protects Your Privacy to learn about a phone that was designed from that start with your privacy in mind.

That will leave law enforcement virtually powerless to solve crimes, according to Comey. He told Congress that unless tech companies are legally required to serve as government locksmiths, “homicide cases could be stalled, suspects could walk free, and child exploitation victims might not be identified or recovered.” “Justice may be denied because of a locked phone or an encrypted hard drive,” he said. But that’s not all Comey and all of law enforcement are concerned about.

T-mobile recently began upgrading the encryption of voice and data traffic carried by its legacy GSM network, making mass surveillance much harder because the equipment used to cast wide nets cannot decrypt what it spies. (Targeted surveillance of a specific phone number’s activity is done with different gear called an “IMSI catcher.”) AT&T has announced plans to make similar upgrades to its GSM network.

Note that T-mobile and AT&T are talking about their GSM networks – legacy 2G technology. Modern 3G and 4G networks already have enhanced encryption. Verizon and Sprint do not use GSM.

So, the doors are closing on government snoops. Their unwilling locksmiths are melting down their tools. It's hard for me to believe that Mr. Comey fails to see the irony here. If not for the government's own disregard for the law and personal privacy, none of this would be happening. Thanks to Edward Snowden, we know that the NSA and other government agencies have adopted an "everyone is a suspect" attitude, implementing draconian dragnet surveillance that spies on and collects data about everyone, whether or not they are suspected of a crime.

Warrants? They don't need no stinkin' warrants. The Feds just go to some secret court and get a blanket warrant that gives them permission to spy on EVERYONE. Or they just go ahead and do it without a warrant. And we're supposed to trust that they'll never use our phone records, emails, text messages, web browsing history and address books against us. That they'll never share any of that with the IRS, HHS, or any other agency with an axe to grind.

No Compromise...

As the newly elected Congress convenes in 2015, we can expect several bills to be introduced that will seek to keep Apple, Google, T-mobile, et. al., at the mercy of law enforcement. Tech companies, cognizant of public relations as well as profits, will fight against such legislation vigorously. My fear is they’ll “compromise” on something that leaves the door open for government snooping just a tiny crack… you know, in case a child is in danger, or a terrorist is suspected, or some creep at the NSA wants to spy on his girlfriend.

I like the way the security expert Bruce Schneier refutes the "logic" of this compromise mentality: "You can't build a 'back door' that only the good guys can walk through. Encryption protects against cybercriminals, industrial competitors, the Chinese secret police and the FBI. You're either vulnerable to eavesdropping by any of them, or you're secure from eavesdropping from all of them."

It's clear we can no longer trust the government to keep its nose out of our business. If there is a back door, the temptation for even the "good guys" to burst through it is just too strong. And that's not even taking into account totalitarian governments and Evil Hackers. I encourage you to keep your eyes and ears open, so that when these issues are discussed by lawmakers, you can tell them to keep that door tightly shut.

Your thoughts on this topic are welcome. Post your comment or question below...

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Most recent comments on "Spy-Proofing Your Mobile Devices"

(See all 23 comments for this article.)

Posted by:

18 Nov 2014

Your article is spot on! Let's start actually obeying our constitution.


Posted by:

18 Nov 2014

I'm wondering just how they managed to solve all those crimes before the age of cellphones then? Score one for freedom of speech!

Posted by:

18 Nov 2014

"That will leave law enforcement virtually powerless to solve crimes" and "Justice may be denied because of a locked phone or an encrypted hard drive," says FBI director Comey. Doesn't this imply that prior (the "olden days") to phones and hard drives, that law enforcement were powerless to solve crimes and justice has never been served?

I'm going to write my congress reps and senators.

Posted by:

18 Nov 2014

With DARPA now having the fastest chip in the world, and working on DNA and atomic spin state storage that should mature in the next 5 years or so and can hold FAR more data than measly Terabytes, there is no reason to believe that the American State (AS) will not use it against it's citizens. And I HAVE thought about reasons why, and honestly can't come up with any except that it's unconstitutional - and that's never stopped our AS before.

Posted by:

18 Nov 2014

FBI Director James Comey's exact words were: "The notion that someone would market a closet that could never be opened — even if it involves a case involving a child kidnapper and a court order — to me does not make any sense."
[Caution: SPINTOLOGY at work here folks! 1)The "closet" Comey refers to, just happens to be a private and a personal closet. 2)We have all heard of blanket warrants that have been previously issued out. 3)Finding an "independent judge" is almost like looking [errr...] for a virgin in a bordello 4)His comment about "child kidnapper" is a ruse and called "argumentum ad misericordiam"! 5)James Comey must be one clooless and out-of-touch FBI director; if providing encryption for personal use and protection "does not make any sense" to him!]

Posted by:

18 Nov 2014

If I decide that a life of crime is for me, I'm going to have to investigate the use of carrier pigeons. It would be just my luck to get a stool pigeon in disguise.

Posted by:

18 Nov 2014

"For those with Android smartphones or tablets, encryption has been available since the Android 3.0 (Honeycomb) release in 2011, but it wasn't turned on automatically."

How do you turn it on for Android phones with a system earlier than Lollipop?

Posted by:

18 Nov 2014

Way to tell it like it is, Bob. Fear-mongering, secrecy and police state surveillance have never resulted in a better society for the majority of people at any time in history. Why do they continue doing it? Because we the people are the enemy.

Posted by:

elizabeth landry
18 Nov 2014

Dear Bob,
One of the most serious result of our information being compromised is our medical history being leaked which can be used to discriminate against us without us ever even knowing what happened or why. That alone is enough of a reason to keep everybody out of our business. Peace, E

Posted by:

18 Nov 2014

I find it disgusting that Snowden alerted the world to how the government was basically dismantling the constitution and he is forced to remain in Russia.

Posted by:

18 Nov 2014

Bruce Schneier went further in his latest newsletter as follows:
As in all of these sorts of speeches, Comey gave examples of crimes that could have been solved had only the police been able to decrypt the defendant's phone. Unfortunately, none of the three stories is true. The Intercept tracked down each story, and none of them is actually a case where encryption foiled an investigation, arrest, or conviction:

In the most dramatic case that Comey invoked -- the death of a
2-year-old Los Angeles girl -- not only was cellphone data a
non-issue, but records show the girl's death could actually
have been avoided had government agencies involved in
overseeing her and her parents acted on the extensive record
they already had before them.

In another case, of a Louisiana sex offender who enticed and
then killed a 12-year-old boy, the big break had nothing to do
with a phone: The murderer left behind his keys and a trail of
muddy footprints, and was stopped nearby after his car ran out
of gas.

And in the case of a Sacramento hit-and-run that killed a man
and his girlfriend's four dogs, the driver was arrested in a
traffic stop because his car was smashed up, and immediately
confessed to involvement in the incident.


Hadn't Comey found anything better since then? In a
question-and-answer session after his speech, Comey both denied
trying to use scare stories to make his point -- and admitted
that he had launched a nationwide search for better ones, to no

This is important. All the FBI talk about "going dark" and losing the ability to solve crimes is absolute bullsh*t. There is absolutely no evidence, either statistically or even anecdotally, that criminals are going free because of encryption.

Posted by:

19 Nov 2014

@Janice --- Bottom line, on ruling in the Riley vs. California case, the US Supreme Court, upheld the US Constitution and the Fourth Amendment.

I just read, US Supreme Court Chief Justice, John G. Roberts Opinion regarding Riley vs. California. The ruling by the US Supreme Court, supported the Fourth Amendment, regarding Cell Phones. There must be a proper warrant, issued by a judge, before Law Enforcement can gain access to the contents of your Cell Phone.

Now, that makes sense to me. However, I really tried to read the whole opinion from the US Supreme Court Chief Justice ... I will readily admit, the Opinions of any "high or higher" court, is so full of legalese, that it can be very difficult, to read them.

I am a Medical person, not a Legal person ... Give me a medical document and I can understand, almost all of it. Give me a legal document and I have almost "no luck", in understanding what it says. I am NOT afraid, to admit that, either!

But, in getting the jest of the opinion, bottom line ... Getting any information from a Suspect's Cell Phone, mainly any person's Cell Phone ... An Search and Seize Warrant must be issued, to look at anyone's Cell Phone, for further evidence.

Now, that makes sense to me, why both Apple and Google, have "paved the way", for consumers to have Encryption, the moment you "purchase" your new phone ... But, only if, you have the "latest and greatest" of either an Apple or Android cell phone.

Posted by:

19 Nov 2014

Great article, Bob.

It just goes to show the contempt that the government, and law enforcers generally, have for the innocent individual.

Posted by:

19 Nov 2014

A delight to read these well informed comments and a delight to see Bob taking a definitive stand against this tyranny after so long soft peddling this information aggregation on the part of corporations like Google, as if there is a difference in this corporatocracy. There has never been centralization of information in human history that a state has not used to consolidate it's power.
Google founders say their goal is to know your next thought before you have it. Do you doubt that the state would let a constitution inhibit it's access to that knowledge?

Posted by:

Sam Fairchild
19 Nov 2014

So the title of this article is: "Spyproofing your mobile devices." I didn't see anywhere in the article how to spyproof my mobile devices--only a reference to "new devices" that have that programmed in by default and obscure mention of it being available on earlier devices. So where's the 'HOW TO" that this article alludes to? The article is informative but not in the way the title suggests. Disappointed in the article due to that fact.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The short answer is "use encryption." For Android users, the long answer is: tap Settings -> More -> Security -> Encrypt Device. Apple Users (iOS 6/7): Settings -> General -> Passcode Lock -> Turn Passcode On.

Posted by:

19 Nov 2014

Don't start bleating when the bombs start going off in the USA. Relying on an amendment that is anachronistic as the dinosaur is foolhardy. I hope you will feel comforted while getting blown up that the terrorists' privacy was not "abused" by an government department.

Posted by:

19 Nov 2014

I'll bet that Dir. Comey's phone number, or those of his family and cronies, aren't included.

Posted by:

19 Nov 2014

Thanks, Bob, for again, being on top of the situation. I appreciate folks like you who tell it like it is. I don't have anything to hide, AND I don't want anyone to have access to any of my personal data online.

Thanks again for a well-considered smart article.

Posted by:

20 Nov 2014

RandiO, RichF:

1) **MY** back door is for MY exit only too. If it was meant to be an Entry, God would have made it look like one AND but it at the front.

2) I agree, the reference to "child Kidnaper" is punctuated wrong, is redundant, a combinations of the previous twe, or he may have meant to write:

A) Child Kid napper - where a young person is just pretending to take a nap (child kid, napper) captures a pirate named 'Billy'; a youngster finds a pirate catching a couple of minutes of 'sleep; or someone kidnapped Billy before he grew up.

-- JAY -- I think the only way to catch a stool pigeon in disguise is to either smell it or find your are cleaning up FAR too often in one particular spot in your kitchen or front porch.

RICH F - I suspect that in years to come we will be celebrating Snowden as we do Jefferson or Adams or Lincoln - as one of our nations TRUE heroes.

Though it's good to remember what happened to many of our other American State Heroes - Lincoln was assassinated,John Qunice was marginalized by adding a diminutive to his last but not first name (Quincy, not Johnny), and Tom Jeffers was transmorpholized (presumably)into his his first born son who was (perhaps) born out of wedlock. (Tom, Jeffers Son)

No one said that Growing Up in the New American State (AS) would be easy, nor were you ever promised historic revisionism would cease and desist just because we can catch such attempts the instant that they are made. The success of such shows as 'Drunk History' are only funny because most people agree with the newly discovered facts about people previously famous for things which they DID do, not for those which they didn't - and thus is set the president for convicting people of crimes they did not commit).

We have the right to Freedom of the Press, when we should have been given the right of Freedom from the Press. In many European Nations 'The Press' is considered a daguerreotype of Torture which is is prohibited by law. In America we still feel that the Government is given the ability to freely use the Press whenever National Security is felt to be at steak. (which is sad, since only a few people really enjoy burnt steak while most prefer it medium or rare.)

And, finally RandiO, I agree, but only need to correct your spelling of "argumentum ad misericordiam" -- I think you meant either "argumentum ad miserbleacordiam" where one simply cannot to finish an argument because of a badly played Accordion, "argumentum ad miserlyacordiam" where you can't get the seller to enforce the terms of your warranty when you try to apply it to a cheap Accordion displayed in an add without an argument; or your own lousy ability in playing your Accordion starts an argument. (AND lets just not go here: let me remind you that 'dwarfs' are now considered real people with real feelings, so any reference to the poor accordion playing by Bashful would probably be considered both argumentative and in poor taste by Snow White.).

I think we should thank both RandiO and RichF for the thoughtful and illuminating comments. They have probably (between them) shed more light on the subject than a Malamute or Siberian Husky can shed in a Southern California July. (And here it is NOVEMBER already!!!)

Posted by:

Herb Klug
21 Nov 2014

Very well written article, and I do to a large extent agree with the concept our private conversations and data are private. However, several others have commented that before hard drives and cell phones, the authorities were able to solve crimes, so they should continue doing so now. Of course, that is akin to saying the Texas Rangers should still be on horseback because the era of automobiles shouldn't change their tracking and chasing behaviors. The reality is, many -if not most- serious crimes today (including terrorism) involve cell phone planning and execution. And child p**n probably would be a non-issue without the internet and personal electronic devices. The problem is the 'overlap' between privacy and law enforcement, and that overlap will only get worse as the plethora of electronic devices (and communication mediums) used in criminal activities increases. The bottom line is, if you want the authorities to lock up terrorists, rapists, murderers, and thieves, you have to allow them access to the proof that they were involved in those crimes. Otherwise they will remain free longer, and more families will become victims of un-apprehended criminals. I understand it is easy to hope you or one of your close family members won't personally be a victim of murder, rape or theft - until, of course, you/they are. Using a cell phone on public airwaves does not grant you a guarantee of privacy. What you get is a reasonably decent connection to another person which goes through publicly-accessed and shared equipment. If you want a guarantee of privacy, it would be best to build your own private network. In the mean-time, let's get the evidence needed to apprehend and convict criminals, and lock them away.

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