Creative Destruction

February 21, 2007

Surveilling Using Cell Phones

Filed under: Criminal Justice,Politics,Science — Brutus @ 1:21 pm

Here is a bit of shocking news (or not so shocking depending on your jadedness): the mic on your cell phone can be activated as a transmitter to allow eavesdropping on your conversations even when the phone is powered down and you are merely in the vicinity of the phone. From the link above:

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.

As I understand it, wiretaps and bugs are legal when issued through a court, but the mechanism to effect a tap requires a personal visit to the compromised device or location. The roving bug is presumably activated remotely and mobile, which represents a technological development that makes eavesdropping push-button simple, and with it, invites abuses and rationalizations along the lines of “it’s only for a moment,” or “it’s merely temporary,” or “it’s for the greater good” by eliminating the plodding steps necessary to activate one.

I believe that this tool is so seductive (meaning so simple to use) that those in government with the technology (or others? criminals?) couldn’t withstand temptation to deploy it whenever they see fit, meaning illegally. The means/ends distinction inevitably slides too far over to the “end” side of the continuum.

Along similar lines — using technology against people in a bid for government control of populations — I learned that the U.S. military has weaponized microwaves and created a heat ray gun that burns flesh. The device is described as harmless and nonlethal, since the ray penetrates less than 0.5 mm of skin, but the lon-term effects are nonetheless unknown.

I don’t know for sure, but I sense that at some point we’ve passed the point where we have enough weapons and technology to deploy an effective military or police force. What we really lack is an enlightened and judicious humanity (characterized by diplomacy, restraint, and unwillingness to act preemptively) to act as a brake on our apparent technophilia.

While it looked like a good or necessary step at the time (and perhaps even in hindsight), the creation of the atomic bomb ushered in a new era of nastiness and angst from which we have yet to recover. Although the two technologies mentioned above aren’t nearly so sweeping as the bomb, they are certainly part of the same complex of idea that drive weapons technology. Maybe someout out there is actually saying once in a while “let’s not pursue this one, it’s too awful,” but I don’t get the feeling that’s true.


  1. I believe that this tool is so seductive (meaning so simple to use) that those in government with the technology (or others? criminals?) couldn’t withstand temptation to deploy it whenever they see fit, meaning illegally. The means/ends distinction inevitably slides too far over to the “end” side of the continuum.

    They’re probably doing it already. It’s just software that gets activated. Does anyone really know anything about the software on their phone? I don’t. Who’s to say the government doesn’t do it after someone says a couple of flagged words.

    Comment by toysoldier — February 21, 2007 @ 1:48 pm | Reply

  2. Wire taps are one of the more innocuous developments. They are inherently hard to use to trap innoncent people, they do only modest harm to reputation if the tapes are kept secret and don’t disclose something bad, and they otherwise leave someone’s person and property undisturbed. Privacy is good, and requiring warrants to control it is good, but it isn’t the worst civil liberties abuse known to man, and there are certainly circumstances when using one would be appropriate. Evidentiary rules that can be applied in a court room setting are also particularly well suited to curbing wire tap abuse in a way that is far less workable in cases involving arrests and property seizures not based on probable cause.

    Pain rays present similar issues to tasers. It beats shooting someone, but provides users with a temptation to use it even when use of a firearm wouldn’t be necessary.

    Comment by ohwilleke — February 21, 2007 @ 3:30 pm | Reply

  3. The government is more than welcome to listen to my kids gripe at me on my cell phone and make demands that I immediately drop what I’m doing and run to do something for them. In fact, if some government gnome would like to listen to those calls instead of me, I’d be even more delighted.

    Comment by Susan — February 24, 2007 @ 8:43 pm | Reply

  4. “…new era of nastiness and angst…” Huh? Nastiness and angst comes hardwired in the current prototype, homo sapien.
    “… provides users with a temptation …” Double-huh? How does any object provide temptation? “Are we not men?” Are we just victims? Tossed and pitched about by the malevolent forces inherent in objects? Explain then how anyone resists temptation, why all do not succumb?
    Some of the worst nastiness, matter of fact, the worst nastiness ever emerged from the bad ideas of Marxism and Communism. Their zeal to create Utopia on earth brought down only circles of Hell.

    Comment by Kerry — March 1, 2007 @ 6:51 am | Reply

  5. I think the delectable goodness of a Krispy Kreme glazed donut just off the conveyor provides considerable temptation to consume large quantities of sugar and fried fat. Perhaps I’m only projecting my own temptation and questionable willpower onto the donut, but it’s merely a convention that we say the donut is tempting. If the object of our temptation is out of sight, out of mind, we feel less temptation and don’t succumb.

    There are lots of things that are hardwired into the phenotype (not prototype) or are merely part of the human condition. I’m not sure that nastiness and angst are part of the former, but they’re definitely part of the latter. But even then, they rise and fall over time. Utopianism may have spawned the worst human nastiness, but we had a 50-year period of relative calm following the two world wars. (Noted exceptions include the Cold War, Nuclear Angst, and the Cuban Missile Crisis.) However, I think it’s fair to say that we have entered a new phase in the 21st century. The world is far more unstable now than it was since WWII. There are both geopolitical concerns and wildly fluxuating markets that contribute to our woes.

    Comment by Brutus — March 1, 2007 @ 11:27 am | Reply

  6. That is amazing.I had no idea you could do that.

    Comment by Fred333 — December 7, 2007 @ 10:56 am | Reply

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