Nothing’s Private: How The Government Can See Your Frisky Texts and Photos

On the Internet, people share thousands of memes about every U.S. citizen having a Personal FBI Agent watching them through their webcam. This idea isn’t as farfetched as you might think — there is a very real possibility that world governments are spying on their citizens via technology.

In an era of technological convenience, we often forget about the security of our amazingly powerful devices. Companies such as Apple make bold statements: claiming their product is a major leap forward in security for mobile devices, which puts some users at ease, but these claims are merely marketing tactics under the guise of security.

Yes, the government can hack your phone and see all of your data. But how is this possible?

An image of surveillance
Photo by Lianhao Qu on Unsplash

Many defense contractors close to the nation’s capital specialize in offensive security — companies that get paid fat checks from Uncle Sam to find bugs in computer software. These bugs can (and are) leveraged to allow malicious software to run on many different devices.

One such company, Zerodium, even allows independent security researchers to disclose vulnerabilities with payouts of up to 2.5 million dollars. Once vulnerabilities are disclosed, they are subsequently sold to three letter government agencies, or other government contractors.

Not much is known about the capabilities of the government when it comes to hacking smartphones. But defense contracts have in the past bragged about being able to hack into any iPhone which has serious privacy and security implications.

In the United States, citizens may not need to worry about these concerns because of the legality of wiretapping citizens. However, recent evidence suggests that other nation-states are behind mass attacks against iPhone users. In fact, in August, recent iPhone versions (as recent as iOS 12) were targeted in a iOS attack.

Any iPhone user that visited a website with the attack on it, would have all of their data stolen. This data includes photos, text messages, contacts, emails, and other sensitive data. This data can be harvested by totalitarian governments to find political dissents and journalists. In fact, new information suggests the aforementioned attack was created by the Chinese government to spy on China’s Uyghur Muslims.

Google’s Project Zero program, a task-force dedicated to finding computer vulnerabilities, also found a variety of other iPhone vulnerabilities. One such bug allowed attackers to remotely steal photos by sending a simple text message to the victim.

iPhone hackers demonstrate photos being stolen from an unsuspecting victim.

iPhone users are not the only demographic affected, however. Android devices were also affected in a similar attack called Stagefright a while back.

The Stagefright vulnerability, affecting most Android devices released before 2016, allows attackers to take full control over a device without physical contact. This vulnerability affects “hundreds of millions” of Android smartphones, and attackers can take over someone’s phone with a simple text message.

These bugs are found almost every single day. In fact, there has been, on average, a steady increase in the number of computer vulnerabilities found since 1999.

Mitre saw, on average, an increase in computer vulnerabilities between 1999 and 2018.

When these bugs are initially discovered, vendors have to take time to fix these vulnerabilities. And hackers take advantage of this time delay to cause catastrophe.

Why should teenagers care about this? College students should know that they are not safe. No technology exists without vulnerabilities because developers inherently make mistakes. And software updates may seem annoying, but it can prevent hackers from stealing your photos or text messages.

Keep your photos safe, kids. Update your phone.