The world woke up Monday morning to yet more unsettling news about how the NSA is spying on people. This time, though, the repercussions are deadly.
It turns out the NSA is helping the military carry out lethal drone strikes using electronic surveillance, namely from unreliable cell phone data.
More specifically, the NSA uses geolocation data to track the SIM card or cell phone of potential targets and it then uses that data to kill them. A former drone operator for Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) told The Intercept that the process is inherently flawed because top Taliban leaders have figured out the United States is using geolocation data from cell phones and regularly swap SIM cards or switch phones. This means that the drone strikes don't necessarily hit their intended targets but rather friends, family members, or even unsuspecting strangers who managed to get ahold of the tracked phone. The former drone operator said that innocent people had "absolutely" been killed as a result of this oversight.
Can American spies really zero in on suspected terrorists thanks to a fingernail-sized piece of plastic? And is this a good idea?
It is entirely possible—and, worse, it's actually not that complicated. SIM cards have been around since 1991 as the universal method for identifying mobile subscribers. (SIM, in fact, stands for "subscriber identity module.") To do so, they contain network-specific information as well as carrier-specific information that authenticates the user. This includes network state data that can be used to geolocate the SIM card and whatever phone it happens to be inserted into.
Now, tracking down a SIM card using network state information is not as easy as using GPS, but it can be done. The carrier—or whoever is doing the tracking—simply finds out which tower the SIM card last communicated with, and thus triangulate the specific location from there. In recent years, this type of tracking has become very accurate and very accessible. There are even several mobile apps that enable you to track phones using SIM card data. Once it know the phone's coordinates the military can send a drone or a convoy or whatever you want to intercept it.
It's hard to know whether the NSA tracks terrorist suspects this way, but the agency's also developed more sophisticated means. While the traditional method sounds pretty simple, documents leaked by Edward Snowden prove that the NSA has developed special software that they can install remotely to track SIM cards. One is called MONKEYCALENDAR. This software implant snatches up the location data from a targeted SIM card and relays it back to whoever's doing the snooping in the form of a text message. MONKEYCALENDAR can also make commands "that allow the SIM card to issue commands and make requests to the handset."
Again, we don't know exactly how the NSA's been tracking the SIM cards as detailed in the latest Intercept story. There's evidence that the agency can even track cell phones that have been turned off, long thought to be a way to dodge spies. The Washington Post reported last year that the NSA had that capability, but details of how it works and how it's used remain unclear.
So the NSA can not only track down your phone, it can also tell your phone to do things. Does this technology make the SIM-tracking strategy any better in terms of accuracy? Absolutely not. Again, all a target has to do is keep switching SIM cards and phones, and he can avoid being tracked. However, based simply on how the technology works at present, cell phones will always be traceable, so suspected terrorists aren't operating without risk even if they do change phones often.
If you're stateside, you're in luck. The NSA can't use this geolocation technology on Americans, because it's illegal which is basically why the agency is only able to collect information on about 20 percent of U.S. calls. But, hey, it's not like the agency doesn't have a whole catalog of other spy tools it can use to track folks down. If you really want to go off the grid, try switching to handwritten letters sent by pigeons. That might actually work.
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