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Death by Smartphone


You wrote that even “if location services/GPS-aware apps are turned off” yet “the battery is charged and in the phone, the phone is a homing beacon whether it’s on or off.” Are the units that are “good about reminding about smartphones” advising to turn off locational apps, geo-tracking, or about not carrying the phone at all?

Michael Yon: First, it is important to acknowledge that I am no expert on electronic tracking. I’ve learned some things from the company I keep and from my own research. I work in dangerous areas. Knowledge of electronic security is important.

Insofar as tracking phones, if you believe yourself or the person you are with is a target worth tracking, and that the opponent has the ability, best is to not carry any phone. Smartphone or not. The phone is constantly tracked by the company. Your travel habits can be mapped retroactively or in realtime. Think of the cell phone as a strobe light that’s always blinking. We can’t see them blinking, but the phone company can.

Insofar as smartphones, iPhones for instance have a battery that cannot be removed. With a BlackBerry you can pop off the back and take out the battery. When I was with certain units on the Iraq/Iran border, everyone with a phone was to take out the battery. An officer said that if you leave the battery in, you can practically watch it drain as the Iranians ping the phone. If they see thirty phones travelling together in a remote area on their border, they likely would take notice. But imagine ten people have phones. If one guy doesn’t take out the battery, that’s enough to track the unit and even hit you across the border with rockets, artillery or an airstrike.

At times when I fly over Iran, my phone picks up Iranian carriers. Their intelligence could easily use that information. If you fly over Iran, the phone pings the towers below and so your flight carrier and destination is known. Now imagine that you are an interesting person, and they already know your phone information. They could have someone pick up your trail when you land in Dubai or wherever.

A couple of months ago, I was on the Afghan/Iran border. My iPhone picked up Iranian towers. If I were a person of interest, they would have a good idea of my location and my direction. That area is riddled with Iranian agents who could have picked up my trail.

The family of a former billionaire Prime Minister of Thailand owned a huge stake in a cell phone company. Today he is in exile and his sister is Prime Minister. Imagine what a politician could do with that access.

An entity with sufficient resources could find lucrative incentives while investing in a section whose mission is to infiltrate phone companies in target areas. It would be crazy to think that the Chinese, Russians, United States and many others have not put significant efforts into these areas. The Israelis have been accused of infiltrating Lebanese cell phone operations and bribing employees.

Do you believe units that are not paying attention to “actionable intelligence” from smartphones realize that by simply carrying a smartphone, even turned off, the phone acts as a “homing beacon” if there is any juice to the battery at all?

Michael Yon: To my knowledge, we are not concerned in Afghanistan about the Taliban tactically tracking military units with smartphones. However, if someone posts a smartphone image (or whatever) in realtime, it might be easy to track.

It’s important to note that in Afghanistan, after a period of time, users are required to register their phones and hand over a copy their passport. The companies already can track your phone but now others know who owns it. Last time I was in India, in order to get a cell phone you had to turn over a copy of your passport. Administratively, they track every hotel or guesthouse you stay in. Years ago, I was tracking someone in India and police allowed me to use those records.

India nearly banned BlackBerries due to encryption issues. The company faced similar pressures in countries such as Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Indonesia and the United States. Many countries want complete access. Presumably the bans have been avoided by allowing governments access to the information.

Some of our government people, such as the President, use special encryption devices on BlackBerries. India and numerous other countries also have issues with the strong encryption used by Skype. Gmail has faced obstacles.

When you land at a foreign airport, it’s possible for the local government to secretly load software into your smartphone. When you email home, spyware can hit your home or office computer.

British journalists broke into voicemails of all sorts of people, including relatives of troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a murder victim. A large paper called News of the World was closed this July due to the scandal. The paper had been in print for 168 years.

The Taliban and other enemies in Afghanistan force cell towers to turn off at night. I’ve seen towers that they attacked. They threaten and kill cell phone company employees. I have been told that they threaten cell phone company executives in places like Kabul. The enemies in Afghanistan likely would do their best to infiltrate the cell phone carriers with agents, or at least compromise employees with coercions or incentives, to obtain registration data and also attempt to gather realtime or historical information.

If you are near the Afghan/Pakistan border, bets are on that in some areas the Pakistanis can track.

Do you believe this tracking via smartphone has cost the lives of any troops in Afghanistan?

Michael Yon: I do not know.  I do know that if I were a high-powered enemy commander, I would do my best to get agents inside those phone companies, or at least try to buy or coerce the information that is harvested. That information can be gold in the hands of an employee who wants to sell it. Indian, Pakistani and US intelligence all have vested interests in knowing what flows through Afghan phones.

Stay tuned for part two of our interview with Michael Yon.


Darlene Storm’s original article can be found here.

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