Spytalk for cellphone

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The phrase "rogue elephant" comes to mind. It entered the political lexicon 40 years ago, after a series of revelations that Army intelligence, the NSA and the FBI had been spying on American citizens, particularly antiwar and civil rights activists, and that the CIA had been concocting assassination plots against Cuba's Fidel Castro and other foreign leaders.

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Senator Frank Church, the Idaho Democrat who presided over explosive hearings into the plots, suggested that the spy agencies were running wild. The idea was that presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Ford, as well as the armed services committees of the House and Senate there were no intelligence committees back then didn't know what was going on.

Decades later, CIA veterans were still bristling, mostly in private, over that canard. This time, the spooks are pushing back - with media leaks, no less - against the Obama White House's suggestion that it didn't know about the NSA's astonishing range of data collection, including, perhaps, listening in on German Chancellor Angela Merkel's cell phone chats. John Prados, author of a new history of the era, The Family Jewels , calls the "rogue elephant" idea a "fiction.

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Another astonishing thing learned from Snowden is how little the NSA and other intelligence agencies know about the millions of people with top-secret security clearances working for them. We've learned that some NSA workers used their powerful computers to check up on their ex-wives and girlfriends. Nicholas Von Hoffman, a longtime friend of mine who wrote about the Church Committee hearings as a Washington Post columnist in , offered a darker potential of thousands of such people with access to telephone and email intercepts, working at their computers after hours.

Somebody ought to be talking about that.

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Peter Fenn was 27 when he went to work as an investigator for the Church Committee in In late September, he and other veterans of the probe gathered at Georgetown University to discuss "the lessons learned back then that should be applied now. Turns out, they still didn't have all the facts. If stories like that conjure up black-and-white images of Nazi radio trucks cruising the dark streets of Paris in search of French Resistance agents, you're not far off, espionage veterans say.

The electro-war is "3-D—in the air, underwater, in buildings, underground," the ex-spy explains. Or they may be tracking a target whose car has a beacon.

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Israel's embassy is next door to Intelsat," which operates over 50 communications satellites for U. According to a recent piece by intelligence expert Matthew Aid in Foreign Policy magazine, the FBI attaches StingRay-like devices to helicopters and flies them over foreign embassies in Washington.

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That's a breeze compared with electro-spy vs. Harris Corp. Judging by the catalog of SafeTech, a Brazilian dealer in high-end police equipment, obtained by Newsweek , StingRays and associated equipment are easily available worldwide. The company does not comment on its sales.

Meanwhile, foreign manufacturers have developed their own versions. You're seeing that in the cyberwars.

They're cheaper and faster, and the availability is widespread. So it wouldn't surprise me that adversarial, state-sponsored activity is going on and targeting our individuals, and at an exponential rate. It's everywhere now, experts say.

Stalkers have it. Private eyes have it. Tabloid reporters could have it if they want to risk getting busted like Rupert Murdoch's British cellphone snoopers.

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Surely political "opposition researchers" have it. In the wake of a incident in which a Florida couple "accidentally" eavesdropped on a conference call between key Republicans, including Newt Gingrich and future House Speaker John Boehner, federal legislation was passed to protect analog communications from interception.

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It didn't work. And obviously, the tech world has moved far beyond those primitive devices, privacy activists argue. Pell, a former federal prosecutor who served as counsel to the assistant attorney general of the Justice Department's National Security Division, argue that "policy makers did not learn the right lessons from the analog cellular interception vulnerabilities of the '90s.

Try getting government officials to even talk about the need for higher encryption standards. A spokesman for the State Department said only, "We provide briefings to our diplomats on the vulnerabilities of using cellphones and telephones while serving overseas," which includes reminders of "the risks associated with revealing personal information via telephones or cellular phones. The main feature of StingRays and the like is that one need not say anything on a cellphone to serve up valuable information.

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Once such devices suck data from your machine, they can find you and your stored contacts anywhere—even when your phone is turned off. Soghoian says that after his demonstration in the congressional hearing room two summers ago, "the staff were pretty shocked…but nothing happened after.