Surveillance alert: For almost a decade, the National Security Agency has had the ability to track cell phones, even when they're turned off.
But it all depends on what's meant by "track," "phone" and "off."
This tracking ability was revealed on July 20 by The Washington Post, in an article chronicling the evolution of the NSA's signals intelligence work in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, when intelligence agencies, the military and the FBI created an "insatiable demand for its work product." That demand was driven in no small part by CIA and paramilitary units and clandestine Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) teams who wanted to use cellphones as real-time beacons to track (and eventually capture or kill) al-Qaeda leaders.
One of the "products" supposedly on offer from September 2004 was "a new NSA technique that enabled the agency to find cellphones even when they were turned off," reported the Post. "JSOC troops called this 'The Find,' and it gave them thousands of new targets, including members of a burgeoning al-Qaeda-sponsored insurgency in Iraq, according to members of the unit."
That news was reported verbatim by numerous media outlets, including Russia Today, which noted that "12 years after the Sept. 11 attack -- and more than three since al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was executed thanks to tactics employed by the NSA, CIA and others -- these operations have not been scaled back." In other words, adding to the list of programs that are collecting data on Americans, now we have to worry about our location being tracked by cellphones even when they're turned off.
But security experts chimed in that cellphones really can't be tracked when they're turned off. "This isn't true -- at least, it's not what you think," said Robert David Graham, CEO of Errata Security, in a blog post. "If you turn your iPhone/Android off, the NSA cannot track you by your phone number" or any other identifying information broadcast by the phone, he said.
Now come the caveats. For one thing, phones that are turned off may not actually be turned off. "If the NSA elects to modify your phone's firmware, removing the battery is the only way to ensure it's actually 'off,'" tweeted Marsh Ray, who works on Windows Azure active authentication at Microsoft.