I was thinking for some reason of gangster movies and true-crime stories, where someone is “wearing a wire”. It dawned on me that any modern programmable phone is a “wire” in that sense. And everyone carries one; it wouldn’t look suspicious.

That is, I could easily write an Android app (and I assume the same is true for iPhone) that, without without showing anything on the screen, monitors the mike to see if anyone’s speaking in the vicinity, and if so, records the audio to the SD card, maybe even encrypting it.

You could make it smart enough to fade away out of sight when someone places or recieves a phone call. For a little extra credit, you could sneakily record video too. With a modern 16G-or-bigger SD card you could record a lot, too, until your battery ran down.

And it’d be easy. I assume anyone who cares, the spooks and cops and bad guys, all realised this years ago.

[Update: ] Steve Jenson reports that this is already happening. I’m so behind the times.


Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: Dorian Taylor (Mar 29 2010, at 14:43)

It's a modern variation on a theme:



From: Emily van Lidth de Jeude (Mar 29 2010, at 14:49)

It goes on even without fancy apps. About a year ago we were swimming in West Van Aquatic Centre when a man was escorted out of the waiting area, next to the pool. He had looked like he was making phone calls, but in fact had been photographing the swimsuit-clad children in the pool. Hm.


From: Ken Hagler (Mar 29 2010, at 15:11)

Cell phones can also be used to track your location throughout the day--the government has admitted to doing this too, and parents can even pay to spy on their kids this way. It doesn't even require any software on the phone, just the cooperation of the phone company--and those companies have already demonstrated that they'll fall all over themselves in their rush to help out Big Brother.


From: Nathan (Mar 29 2010, at 15:29)

When I was in college we said that there needs to be recording/archiving of conversations (mostly to prove me wrong or throw ridiculous things I said back in my face later, of course). Recording audio is so passe...what about keeping a speech-to-text engine transcribing all audio within earshot all day?

I realize we need advancements in both battery and transcription technology for this to happen...but it wouldn't surprise me if it did. It wouldn't surprise me if, within a decade, Google released an Android app that would do this, tagging the transcription by speaker when it can identify who it is, and of course store it online for data mining at their leisure.

It would certainly have the quintessential Google quality of being both nifty and incredibly scary at the same time.


From: JuanalBlue (Mar 29 2010, at 16:28)

This was also a major plot point of Batman: The Dark Night. Bruce Wayne creates an app that gets installed on every cell phone in Gotham that allows him to sonically 'see' and hear everything that is going on within a range of a cell phone. A power so great that he ultimately allows it to be destroyed after only one use in order to keep Fox's loyalty. I doubt that anyone else who has invented such an application for mobile devices will be so magnanimous about its use/abuse.


From: Flip (Mar 29 2010, at 16:57)

Anyone who has watched the TV series "Burn Notice" would already know about using a cell phone as a bug. :-)


From: Thomas (Mar 29 2010, at 17:41)

For this reason, in fact, a lot of activists (especially those operating under unfriendly governments) pull the batteries out of their cell phones before group meetings.


From: Andrew (Mar 29 2010, at 21:42)

The iPhone doesn't allow background apps so the spyware in the story you linked to simply couldn't happen on the iPhone. Even Microsoft has figured out that background apps have no place on a phone, when will Android catch up?


From: Henry Story (Mar 30 2010, at 01:44)

(My question was: "Do babies drink vodka or milk?" - do you come up with those yourself :-)

Anyway, another similar story:

"School laptop spy case prompts Wiretap Act rethink" http://bit.ly/dpXXs4 <- the school did video surveillance using the laptop camera!


From: Tony Fisk (Mar 30 2010, at 06:35)

Well, there was that recent case about a school snooping on its students through the laptop camera and busting one for snorting... a flaky pastry snack.

Rather than subverting someone else's mobile phone, there is the more empowering approach of using it to record your activities and encounters for yourself (what Jamais Cascio refers to as 'sousveillance')


From: len (Mar 30 2010, at 09:05)

On the positive side, it's not hard to see what the next generation of integrated android apps will bring to near-real-time GPS-enabled tasks driving events to role-based devices.

Public safety will love this stuff. Google Goggles will be most useful.


From: Jay Gischer (Mar 30 2010, at 16:58)

That story you linked to seemed to me to be full of hype and stupidity. The problem is real, but all the woman depicted needed to do was to get a new phone. They will give you one after two years, and she went three not knowing what was going on?


From: Dan Brickley (Apr 02 2010, at 08:38)

I ran into such stories a couple years ago w.r.t. real spies, but I didn't realise things were as widespread as described in the article you linked.


""A few days after that we found out the full story from our hotel owner in Damascus. Apparently the CIA gave a load of bugged N95s to high-ranking Kurdish officials in Iraq, many of which were then smuggled into Syria and given as gifts to various shady characters. After the Hezbollah guy was assassinated in Damascus a few months ago, the Syrians set about trying to root out spies, which led to this ban on bringing N95s into the country. Apparently.""


From: Niklas (Apr 08 2010, at 03:12)

Yepp, you're right.

I was working for a military service for a couple of year. The use of mobile phones as Spy-equipment were well known, even if they where shut off. We usually took out the battery to minimize the risk. Not even that where really safe.


From: Dave Walker (Apr 11 2010, at 10:22)

As a sage gent who used to work for .gov.uk once put it to me, "every speaker is potentially a microphone. However, the recording fidelity may vary".

I think that's a pretty good thought to hold, on the subject.


From: Webreaper (Apr 16 2010, at 01:08)

There's already apps which do this on Android. There's one which runs in the background and constantly records in a loop, so you always have the last 10 minutes of any conversation on the SD card. And there's another which runs in the background and is activated whenever you make/receive a call, at which point it starts recording. Seemed to work quite well when I tested it.


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