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How the Camera On Your Cellphone Can Be Captured and Used to Spy on You

Researchers have created malware for Android smartphones that can remotely take over your phone's camera and use it to spy on you.
 
 
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Taxpayer-funded programs have created malware for Android smartphones that can remotely take over your phone's camera and use it to spy on you, according to reports in the Washington Times and PCWorld.

According to Christina DesMarais at PC World:

They call it "visual malware" dubbed PlaceRaider that uses the phone's camera and other sensors to create three-dimensional models of indoor environments that bad guys could download, study and use to steal "virtual objects" such as financial documents, information on computer monitors, and personal information.

Researchers from the U.S. Naval Surface Warfare Center developed the software along with researchers from the school of Informatics and Computing at Indiana University in Bloomington, thanks to a grant from the National Science Foundation. (You can read their full paper here [PDF].)

The study was designed to see what kind of information hackers might be able to steal using malware disguised as an app on a smartphone; other forms of malware already include programs that can listen in on calls and steal credit card numbers or PIN numbers that users might say while calling their bank, or use the phone to “feel” keystrokes typed on a computer keyboard near the phone.

But PlaceRaider may be the most sophisticated spy technology yet. The report says, “PlaceRaider thus turns an individual's mobile device against him- or herself, creating an advanced surveillance platform capable of reconstructing the user's physical environment for exploration and exploitation.”

Their study tested the application on two different human subjects and showed that the technology worked and posed a significant risk, and then offered possible protections against malware like it.

DesMarais notes that it may be a bit early to worry that your smartphone is surreptitiously creating a 3-D model of your apartment or recording your computer's keystrokes while it sits on your desk. “These researchers get paid to do this stuff and they have vast resources at their fingertips. While they can prove phones are capable of doing these kinds of tricks, and even if doing so gives real criminals ideas, the average hacker can’t pull off such shenanigans on his own.”

Perhaps the concern should be, not that individual “bad guys” might hack your phone to steal your credit card number, but that the government itself might be collecting your information. As Kade Ellis of Privacy SOS and the ACLU reported, a security expert says that everyone who was at Occupy Wall Street had their cell phone surveyed by the NYPD. “[T]he identity of that cell phone has been logged, and everybody who was at that demonstration, whether they were arrested, not arrested, whether their photos were ID'd, whether an informant pointed them out, it's known they were there anyway. This is routine,” private investigator Steven Rambam says in a video talk.

He continued, "[C]ell phones are now the little snitch in your pocket. Cell phones tell me where you are, what you do, who you talk to, everybody you associate with."

And if the NYPD or other government agencies spying on you through your cell phone doesn't make you nervous, perhaps Rambam's last comment will: he says that the government is “amateur” compared to big business.

“Your privacy today isn't being invaded by big brother -- it's being invaded by big marketer,"

 

 

 

 

Sarah Jaffe is a staff writer at In These Times and the co-host of Dissent magazine's "Belabored" podcast. Her writings on labor, social movements, gender, media and student debt have been published in The Atlantic, The Nation, The American Prospect, AlterNet and many other publications, and she is a regular commentator for radio and television. You can follow her on Twitter: @sarahljaffe.