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Governments are buying tools that track your phone nearly anywhere

Jon Fingas, @jonfingas
August 25, 2014
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Don't think that widespread cellphone surveillance is the sole province of big nations like the US and UK; apparently, it's within reach of just about any country with enough cash and willing carriers. The Washington Post understands that "dozens" of countries have bought or leased surveillance tools that let them track phones around the world with relative ease, so long as providers cooperate. The software exploits poor security in SS7, an inter-carrier network, to get your rough location by plugging in your phone number. With enough queries, suspicious governments (and well-connected gangs) can easily find out where you're going, whether you're in town or on the other side of the planet. To make things worse, these systems are frequently paired up with StingRays and other devices that can both get more accurate positioning and intercept phone traffic.

The FCC is already investigating whether or not StingRays are falling into the wrong hands, and it tells the Post that the SS7-based tools might be subjected to an equal level of scrutiny. Preventing abuse in the short term may be difficult, however. The newspaper found that 75 percent of carriers accepted location requests, and many networks can't block them successfully. SS7 should be replaced by a more secure system within 10 years, but that's not comforting if you have to visit a paranoid regime right now -- especially since the tools are marketed as ways to get personal data that providers refuse to offer. While you're not necessarily a target, you'll want to be cautious about who gets your phone number in the future. It might be used for a lot more than just annoying telemarketing calls.

[Image credit: AP Photo/Francisco Seco]

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