Remote Snooping 169

It is nine years since I published in Murder in Samarkand that the security services can listen to you through your mobile telephone, even when it is apparently switched off. You could only prevent this by removing the battery. Shortly thereafter many mobile phone manufacturers started producing sealed phones from which you could not easily remove the battery. That was not especially a result of my publication. But I know for certain that the western security services had cooperated with the mobile phone companies in securing the software backdoor which enabled them to switch on the microphone when the phone appeared to be off. I am therefore inclined to believe the development of phones where it was hard to take the battery out was also encouraged by the security services.

Knowledge of the remote switch on was disseminated more widely after I met Richard Stallman, a hero of mine, and was able to tell him about it. He publicised it to the tech-savvy community. Eventually Edward Snowden released precisely the same information, and the mainstream media finally started reporting it, seven years after I first published it. Now, the security services themselves have admitted to having this capability, rather to the horror of extreme right wing commentators.

I learnt that the security services can bug you through your mobile phone, even if it appears to you switched off, in the course of my official duties. I was among those allowed to know, and could tell it with 100% certainty.

I have now been told something new for which I cannot give a 100% guarantee of truth, though I have no reason to doubt the good faith of the person who gave me the information, and I can say for sure they would have the access to know this officially. I am told by a good source that the security services can now activate the microphone, even if the battery has been removed and there is no power source in the phone.

To a non-technological person like me, that sounds impossible. How do you remotely power something? If it is true, will I not need a cable for my television one day? I find the notion fascinating. I have taken on board that removing the battery may not be enough, but would welcome thoughts on the plausibility of this information.

Allowed HTML - you can use: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

169 thoughts on “Remote Snooping

1 2 3 6
  • BrianFujisan

    I Have been Wary.. in case of detail Horrors Might seem strange comiming from a Bujitsu Type..But i must rad this Book..Thank you for putting your Life at peri

  • Anon1

    “I Have been Wary.. in case of detail Horrors Might seem strange comiming from a Bujitsu Type..But i must rad this Book..Thank you for putting your Life at peri”


    Can anyone translate?

  • clansaorsa

    Not sure, Craig, how ‘phone without battery could be accessed but removing the sim card is the recommended way of preventing snooping. Without the sim card the ‘phone cannot communicate with anything or be communicated with.

  • craig Post author


    Only you would claim something is a weird conspiracy theory when the security services have explicitly admitted it is happening. There is one of the two of us who is completely out of touch with reality – and it is not me.

  • Habbabkuk (la vita è bella)

    How would that work with pay as you go phones which one can buy over the counter anonymously?

  • craig Post author


    I am genuinely unsure if that is 100% foolproof. It certainly stops communication via the mobile phone network. But, for example, an iPhone can tell you its location even with the sim card out and identify itself.

  • Anon1

    I think you go a bit further than that, Craig.

    Be sure to leave two holes for the eyes so you can spot the muddy footprints.

  • Sam Addison

    I have to say that it sounds iffy on first reading, but as someone with limited knowledge of physics, I do know one thing – a microphone works by converting sound energy (ie vibrations) into electrical energy. It’s a loudspeaker in reverse. So whereas you need to have a source of electrical energy for a loudspeaker to work, a microphone is itself a source of electrical energy. Microphones only require an external source of electrical energy in order to amplify its output.

    The electrical output from a phone’s microphone probably won’t get you very far, however – something then needs to be done with the sound information encoded in the output current. So, essentially, for this tale to be believable, you’d need a plausible account of what could be done with the relatively tiny current created by the microphone on a phone.

  • craig Post author


    In some cases it may require human intelligence work to identify who is using what phone, of course. I have, personally, given phone numbers to the security services which I wanted tapped, in the course of my duties.

    What interests me is why you and anon1 feel a need to try and downplay this or pretend it isn’t happening or could not happen in some instances?

  • Anon1

    Also, can you give us an definition of “extreme right-wing” as you understand it? At present it seems to be anything to the right of Leon Trotsky.

  • craig Post author


    Thanks for that. Yes, it sounds implausible to me too, but actually your informative comment makes me think it is a little less impossible than I first thought.

  • craig Post author


    In this particular instance, by “extreme right wing” I meant “fanatical Zionist to the point of being crazed; hater of civil liberties, married to Melanie Phillips.” Extreme right wing was shorter.

  • Oliver

    When you think vocal resonance can be picked up from a glass of water & amplified let alone focussing on window reverberations for sound pick up it wouldn’t surprise if it were true. Even if it’s not the rumour’s useful. Goes back down to the old diplomatic saw “never do anything in private you wouldn’t want on the front pages of a newspaper the next morning”. That’s a phrase that can just about be applied to anybody these days but with impunity rather than immunity. The gulf between technological capacity & the public’s knowledge of it is huge largely because the social capacity to understand & legislate for appropriate use just isn’t there. If you look at how spy cameras & nanny cams are being used by the general public on one another (which includes organized crime & poorly educated political partisan types), intelligence analysts are the least of any bodies worries. But again that could depend on who’s looking at your file if you have one. That could give it to a moron for interpretation of they’re feeling spiteful.

  • giyane

    No no no, MI5 uses dustmen and street cleaners to pick up detritus of litter you may have left to incriminate yourself. I heard that from Radio 4.

    A lady at GCHQ couldn’t resist expressing her shock at the clarity of the reception when listening to terror suspects.

    It’s obvious to me that the spooks don’t have to use your broadband etc. All they need is a pin-head microphone that can talk to their broadband. Why else did virgin media install 2 separate broadband channels in the rented house next door?

    That can easily be planted under your skin when you are out for the count in hospital.
    Every sheep in the UK is chipped. baaaaa! bwaaagh! baaaaaaaaaa! bwagh!

  • glenn_uk

    Craig – devices need very little power if they’re not doing a lot of computation, and are not transmitting. I imagine it could easily sit there recording almost indefinitely given the size of storage these days, and then upload a compressed version once its battery is restored. A tiny device with minimal power can record hundreds of hours of sound. Capacitors or small secondary batteries will allow for this service to run, which had been charged by the main battery.

    You’d want a facility like this anyway – where it records in order to upload later – just in case it was in an area where there was no signal. The mobile does such a lot of chattering away to the network, it would be almost impossible to distinguish captured sound recordings from other data. Particularly since it is likely to be compressed and encrypted.

  • giyane

    yesterday morning at about this time, on cue for my comment that the BBC promote Islamic State, Radio 4 broadcast a promotional piece from a BBC spy lodged there.

    They do have fertile imaginations in White City. Most of Daish are so high on speed they couldn’t give a fatwa for why they are there and what they are doing there.

  • Clark

    I expect that remote snooping without a battery is rather limited. Some points for consideration.

    * ‘Phones contain capacitors which store small amounts of electricity. These could run the electronics for a short while. Some also contain a back-up battery to run the internal clock when the main battery is removed or discharged.

    * Our ambient environment is now full of electromagnetic radiation. There are devices such as RFID Tags (Radio Frequency IDentification) which are used to activate the alarm if you attempt to leave a supermarket with one of the more expensive items that has a security tag. These have no power source and work entirely on incident electromagnetic radiation, but their transmission range is very limited.

    * Some mobile ‘phones can be charged just by placing them on a base-plate, no wires or plugs are necessary.

    * In Spycatcher, Peter Wright describes how a bust of Lenin was given to the Russian embassy. It was a listening device requiring no power source. It was activated by beaming microwaves at it from outside the embassy.

    So all in all, not impossible. Best thing for a tinfoil hat is to wrap it around your cellphone and connect it securely to earth. That’ll prevent it transmitting or receiving radio waves…

    Or just don’t have a cellphone.

  • John

    Electrical energy can be stored in different ways. One way is a battery. Another, which is common, is to use a capacitor. There is room for a storage capacitor in a ‘phone. I am not sure how long it would last but it may be enough to send information in bursts. It is also possible to transmit energy using radio waves and is being developed as contactless charging. There is no reason external power fron a radio source could not be used but again power requirements would need to be low if any distance was involved.

  • AdrianD

    I’ve no specific technical ability, but could the increasingly used wireless charging functions be used to provide sufficient power for htis kind of thing?

  • Clark

    I think the real point is that, short of the collapse of our technological society (which I by no means rule out), the ability to snoop is only going to increase. How can we best cope with a society in which there is literally no privacy at all?

    I think the only approach is to make all information public, and repeal all laws except those that concern genuine harm – the ultimate realisation of “if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear”.

    Like Iain M. Banks’ fictional, futuristic society The Culture.

  • Roy

    Hi Craig. In Peter Wright’s “Spycatcher” book from 1987 he goes into great detail about how he used microphones with no internal, or wired, power source.

    I see the book has already been mentioned in these comments.

    The whole book is very interesting, and is a good one to read alongside your Murder in Samarkand book, as the reader gets some idea of what is possible, and some explanation of what happened to you in your book.

  • DiamondFish

    My parents told me a story about one of their friends who lost their mobile phone. The phone had run out of battery power so they could not do the usual trick of calling it on a land line and listening for the ring. In desperation they called the telephone company. An engineer was able to remotely turn on the phone, even though it was officially out of power, and verify that it was somewhere on their property. He then made it ring out loud. They found it down the side of a seat in the car. It was an amazing technical feat but it did make my parents and their friends wonder how much control the telephone companies really have over these devices.

    I should also point out that a very prosaic reason for making phones with an integrated battery is that the battery is often the first thing to wear out. Forcing the user to buy an entirely new phone does make more money for the manufacturer than allowing users to swap out a dead battery.

  • Oliver

    Here you go:

    “A World of Wireless Power”

    George Galloway had it right at one of his presentations at Oxford Union where he basically told them they’ve been surveilled in various forms since they were born.

    While this is no surprise it can be a worrying thought as to how such information could be used by political & corporate interests whose values perhaps might not be shared.

    Basic rule is if the state wants in it’s going to get in & there’s nothing you can do about it.

    Why would you want to anyway, unless it’s for the purpose of ratcheting up dramatic tension?

  • Phil the ex frog

    A mic doesn’t need power but transmiting of data does.

    My guess is there is a second power source in the phone ( like radios have a smaller battery to retain the station tuning when the main batteries die). Bluetooth and wireless could be used to transmit the data when the sim card is removed.

1 2 3 6

Comments are closed.