Are our smartphones spying on us?

In the last few days the top story across the news has been revelations that the US National Security Agency has been covertly spying on our electronic communications. The so called PRISM system which was leaked showed that the NSA had ‘direct access’ into servers at Google, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft and others. These tech companies have been quick to deny this, but the US government has affectively admitted the PRISM system exists.

This access into our private data stored with the web’s leading services suggests strongly that what we do on our smartphones may be available to the NSA to look at at any time. The leak showed that the NSA wouldn’t even need court orders to spy on non-US citizens or the conversations of US citizens with non-US citizens, meaning that everyone in Britain could potentially be spied on by the programme.

Exact details on how the PRISM programme works haven’t been leaked, and the swift denials by tech companies suggest that the NSA has developed technology that is able to access communications without the knowledge of the tech companies – either by surruptiously hiding their access to their servers, or by monitoring communications our of their data centres perhaps by getting hold of the private keys that encrypt the communications behind ‘https’ connections.

What we do know is that the services listed have been targeted by the NSA are our data on them is potentially accessible to the US government. On the one hand for most there’s probably nothing to worry about as our conversations about going out last night or which friend is getting married have very little to interest to the US security services. But on the other hand there’s clearly dangers of what could be done with the information, such as stealing commercial secrets for competitive advantage or spying on people to see if they are involved in minor crimes such as speeding in order to persecute someone the US doesn’t like.

So should we just get rid of our smartphones if we don’t want to be spied on? Well we don’t yet know the exact scope of the data that is available to the NSA so we can’t say for certain whether for instance signing up to the Google Play store gives the NSA access to location data on your Android, or whether the Apple sign up reveal location data or just data such as your iMessage communications.

So with Windows Phone, Android and iPhone all potentially giving information to the US government, what options are available? The most obvious alternative is Blackberry, which recently launched a new Q10 smartphone. For years Blackberry has marketed themselves on their security features, and many government around the world trust them, and them alone, for their smartphones. It’s still possible the US government has access to data from them, but their network model and the fact they aren’t based in the US provided some hope that they are free of NSA spying.

Another option could be to use a different operating system such as the new Firefox OS. This OS is in its early stages and is designed for low end smartphones, but it doesn’t seem affected by this scandal.

Another option could be to use Android or another mainstream operating system without signing up to any Google services, or signing up with fake details and not providing any information that could linked to your real identity. This may make it harder to purchase from the app stores, as you’d need to use a credit card that isn’t linked to your real name – a pre-paid card would be a good option.

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Are our smartphones spying on us?

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