Michael's Dispatches

Death by Smartphone


30 November 2011

Recently I published a small piece about smartphone security called Pocket Spies.  A security writer at ComputerWorld read Pocket Spies and contacted me for an interview.  

This is not my field, but that I have built awareness due to the dangers of my profession.  Anyone who uses a phone of any sort should be aware of the dangers.   Some of these pitfalls can cost you money, or worse.  

Please read:


November 29, 2011 - 10:14 A.M.

Pocket Spies: Smartphone actionable intelligence

Darlene Storm
Security Is Sexy

Photographer and writer Michael Yon, a former Green Beret, has been with our combat troops and reporting from Iraq and Afghanistan since 2004. Yon recently published an extremely interesting article titled Pocket Spies which deals with how our smartphones act like a pocket spy which we willingly carry, yet many people don't consider the hidden dangers. Yon has seen a perilous side of it that many of us never will, when carrying a phone can potentially cost the lives of U.S. troops.

Since GPS tracking is a huge issue that SCOTUS is deciding right now, I interviewed Yon about pocket spies and actionable intelligence. He's seen some U.S. combat units that are careful and aware of the hidden dangers from smartphone pocket spies and some that are not. Here's the first of a two part series:

You wrote that even "if location services/GPS-aware apps are turned off" yet "the battery is charged and in the phone, the phone is a homing beacon whether it's on or off." Are the units that are "good about reminding about smartphones" advising to turn off locational apps, geo-tracking, or about not carrying the phone at all?

Michael Yon: First, it is important to acknowledge that I am no expert on electronic tracking. I've learned some things from the company I keep and from my own research. I work in dangerous areas. Knowledge of electronic security is important.

Insofar as tracking phones, if you believe yourself or the person you are with is a target worth tracking, and that the opponent has the ability, best is to not carry any phone. Smartphone or not. The phone is constantly tracked by the company. Your travel habits can be mapped retroactively or in realtime. Think of the cell phone as a strobe light that's always blinking. We can't see them blinking, but the phone company can.

Insofar as smartphones, iPhones for instance have a battery that cannot be removed. With a BlackBerry you can pop off the back and take out the battery. When I was with certain units on the Iraq/Iran border, everyone with a phone was to take out the battery. An officer said that if you leave the battery in, you can practically watch it drain as the Iranians ping the phone. If they see thirty phones travelling together in a remote area on their border, they likely would take notice. But imagine ten people have phones. If one guy doesn't take out the battery, that's enough to track the unit and even hit you across the border with rockets, artillery or an airstrike.

At times when I fly over Iran, my phone picks up Iranian carriers. Their intelligence could easily use that information. If you fly over Iran, the phone pings the towers below and so your flight carrier and destination is known. Now imagine that you are an interesting person, and they already know your phone information. They could have someone pick up your trail when you land in Dubai or wherever.

A couple of months ago, I was on the Afghan/Iran border. My iPhone picked up Iranian towers. If I were a person of interest, they would have a good idea of my location and my direction. That area is riddled with Iranian agents who could have picked up my trail.

The family of a former billionaire Prime Minister of Thailand owned a huge stake in a cell phone company. Today he is in exile and his sister is Prime Minister. Imagine what a politician could do with that access.

An entity with sufficient resources could find lucrative incentives while investing in a section whose mission is to infiltrate phone companies in target areas. It would be crazy to think that the Chinese, Russians, United States and many others have not put significant efforts into these areas. The Israelis have been accused of infiltrating Lebanese cell phone operations and bribing employees.

Do you believe units that are not paying attention to "actionable intelligence" from smartphones realize that by simply carrying a smartphone, even turned off, the phone acts as a "homing beacon" if there is any juice to the battery at all?

Michael Yon: To my knowledge, we are not concerned in Afghanistan about the Taliban tactically tracking military units with smartphones. However, if someone posts a smartphone image (or whatever) in realtime, it might be easy to track.

It's important to note that in Afghanistan, after a period of time, users are required to register their phones and hand over a copy their passport. The companies already can track your phone but now others know who owns it. Last time I was in India, in order to get a cell phone you had to turn over a copy of your passport. Administratively, they track every hotel or guesthouse you stay in. Years ago, I was tracking someone in India and police allowed me to use those records.

India nearly banned BlackBerries due to encryption issues. The company faced similar pressures in countries such as Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Indonesia and the United States. Many countries want complete access. Presumably the bans have been avoided by allowing governments access to the information.

Some of our government people, such as the President, use special encryption devices on BlackBerries. India and numerous other countries also have issues with the strong encryption used by Skype. Gmail has faced obstacles.

When you land at a foreign airport, it's possible for the local government to secretly load software into your smartphone. When you email home, spyware can hit your home or office computer.

British journalists broke into voicemails of all sorts of people, including relatives of troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a murder victim. A large paper called News of the World was closed this July due to the scandal. The paper had been in print for 168 years.

The Taliban and other enemies in Afghanistan force cell towers to turn off at night. I've seen towers that they attacked. They threaten and kill cell phone company employees. I have been told that they threaten cell phone company executives in places like Kabul. The enemies in Afghanistan likely would do their best to infiltrate the cell phone carriers with agents, or at least compromise employees with coercions or incentives, to obtain registration data and also attempt to gather realtime or historical information.

If you are near the Afghan/Pakistan border, bets are on that in some areas the Pakistanis can track.

Do you believe this tracking via smartphone has cost the lives of any troops in Afghanistan?

Michael Yon: I do not know.  I do know that if I were a high-powered enemy commander, I would do my best to get agents inside those phone companies, or at least try to buy or coerce the information that is harvested. That information can be gold in the hands of an employee who wants to sell it. Indian, Pakistani and US intelligence all have vested interests in knowing what flows through Afghan phones.

Stay tuned for part two of our interview with Michael Yon.


Darlene Storm's original article can be found here.

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  • This commment is unpublished.
    Paul Duey · 9 years ago
    Hi Mike,
    A relative of mine is a traffic engineer for the State of Florida. He said the state now monitors blue tooth transmissions to determine where traffic jams are in the making.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Chuck Peterson · 9 years ago
    Thanks for the info Michael. I have been living under the belief that when my iPhone was "off" it was indeed "off." Hopefully the ISAF commanders understand that difference as well. Personally though, I could never imagine going out on ops carrying any type of device like that. It's bad enough when someone forgets to turn their ringer off in a meeting, but to have that happen during an op? Joe will be Joe, and that's why we have good NCO's, but still...
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Mike in Texas · 9 years ago
    Would using those small lead bags that used to be a photographers best friend for protecting his film from radiation be good for blocking any signals?? If so at least you could have the smart phone, even an apple brand, with you in case of need and hide your electronic footprint.
    • This commment is unpublished.
      Steve Silverwood · 9 years ago
      Lead blocks radiation (like x-rays). It has no effect on electromagnetic signals. The bag is useless for this purpose.

      The only way to do that effectively would be the use of a Faraday cage -- essentially a screened-in box that is well and thoroughly grounded. We used these -- on a larger scale, the size of a medium-sized bedroom -- to work on emergency locator beacons so that if they transmitted the signal would not travel beyond the walls of the cage.

      The key is the grounding of the cage, so that any signals hitting the screen would be shorted directly to ground and travel no further. Since the ground connection eliminates any form of portability, it's not practical for this purpose.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    A.F. · 9 years ago
    Interesting. I took my iPhone with me on deployment but as I couldn't pick up any of the carriers there (unless I unlocked it or paid obscene roaming charges, neither of which I wanted to d it stayed in our compound and functioned as an alarm clock/backup iPod/Game Boy for the duration of the deployment. Probably not a big deal to have it in country as long as you leave it on your FOB/COP, but I don't claim to really understand all this stuff so who knows.

    Roshan, one of the 2 primary cell carriers in Afghanistan, is actually owned by a subsidiary of the Iranian government IIRC.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Kevin · 9 years ago
    Old style phones, that you could only talk and text on, have limited capabilities. You turn them off, and they are off.

    With smartphones, you have to take the battery out, to be sure they are off. It's possible to control a smartphone remotely and download a piece of software into it, that makes the phone look like it's off, but the microphone is on, and the phone is transmitting. Somebody can listen to your conversations, without you knowing. If your phone is off, and the battery is still getting drained unusually fast, this is probably what's happening.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Ramone · 9 years ago
    Here's a related article http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/11/ 0/carrier-iq-trevor-eckhart_n_1120727.html
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Mike · 9 years ago
    You can turn on a smart phone remotely if you are looking for that person.
    What about your camera with gps info that gets embeded in the photo file?
    Thanks for the great article.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    PhilM · 9 years ago
    And my family wondered why I was so vehemently against installing On-Star in my vehicle! Thank you Michael, I will pass this along to some of my 'uninvolved' friends.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    ret7army · 9 years ago
    I previously worked in a place with shielded metal buildings one variety of cell phone would constantly drain its battery by actively attempting to ping for a cell-tower. I switched to a different phone and apparently it wouldn't ping but would only passively wait for a connection. Whether this form of older cell phone would allow another to track you actively or not I don't know. One method of trying to check is to put your phone into an area with no connectivity - in the boondocks or a metal shell for several hours and see if the battery is draining at a faster rate than normal. If it is then its trying to actively find a cell-tower. Hope this helps you figure out your system.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Kerri Hammer · 9 years ago
    Wow. I never thought of this. Thanks for bringing this to my attention, Mr. Yon. I do have a question, though. Is it just smart phones or is it any cell phone, even the older ones?
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Sandra · 9 years ago
    It is my understanding that this is what caused the capture of those 12 CIA operatives recently. They were located via the cell phones they were carrying. Do you know if this is true?
  • This commment is unpublished.
    PhilM · 9 years ago
    The second part to Michael's interview with Darlene Storm is at:
    [B]Smartphone pocket spy tracking by drug cartels at Mexican border war zone?[/B]
    [url=http://blogs.computerworld.com/19 52/smartphone_pocket_spy_tracking_by_drug_cartels_at_mexican_border_war_zone][/url]

    As Michael noted there:
    [I]Imagine a Mexican journalist with confidential informants. She gets picked up along with her smartphone, and the cartel (or whoever) beats the password out of her. Now they've got the keys to the kingdom without infiltrating a phone company. A common criminal can do this.[/I]

    You may not be an expert in security, Michael, but you do explain the serious pitfalls of our surveillance society - thank you.
  • This commment is unpublished.
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