The world’s spying agencies have tools that allow them to take over smartphones with just a text message, according to Edward Snowden, and there is “very little” that their owners can do to stop it.
The UK’s intelligence agency has a suite of tools that let it listen on phones and their owners, Snowden told the BBC’s Panorama in Moscow. All spies would need to do is send a special text message and they will be able to gain access to the camera and its microphones, the BBC reported Snowden as saying.
The set of tools is called “Smurf Suite”, according to Snowden. Each of the individual tools has their own name — “Dreamy Smurf” lets the phone be powered on and off, for instance, and “Nosey Smurf” lets spies turn the microphone on and listen in on users, even if the phone itself is turned off.
GCHQ even has a tool called “Paranoid Smurf” that hides the fact that it has taken control of the phone. The tool will stop people from recognising that the phone has been tampered with if it is taken in for a service, for instance.
“For example, if you wanted to take the phone in to get it serviced because you saw something strange going on or you suspected something was wrong, it makes it much more difficult for any technician to realise that anything's gone amiss,” Snowden said.
The comments mirror those by Snowden earlier in the year, when his lawyer said that the whistleblower doesn’t use an iPhone because it “has special software that can activate itself without the owner having to press a button and gather information about him, that’s why on security grounds he refused to have this phone”.
The text message used to gain access to the phone wouldn’t be seen by its user and they would have no idea that it had arrived, Snowden said.
"That's a specially crafted message that's texted to your number like any other text message but when it arrives at your phone it's hidden from you,” Snowden said. “It doesn't display. You paid for it [the phone] but whoever controls the software owns the phone."
Snowden said that GCHQ’s counterpart in the US, the NSA, has spent $1 billion on similar tools.
The 10 best smartphones
The 10 best smartphones
1/10 iPhone 6 and 6 Plus
Apple’s latest comes in two varieties: the iPhone 6 (4.7- inch screen and only 6.9mm thick) and the iPhone 6 Plus – a larger (5.5-inch) version, more suited for those with gorillasized hands. The experience remains largely the same: expect sleek, beautiful apps in a package that ties you into their ecosystem. From £539, store.apple.com
2/10 ZTE Blade L2
At only £90, the Blade is the perfect price-point for making sure your kids are safe when they leave the house. The battery lasts for 23 hours, so they can contact you easily, wherever they are. 5MP camera and a 5-inch screen. £89.99, store.virginmedia.com
3/10 Sony Xperia Z3
Anyone who wants a full PlayStation experience should at least consider this phone, which allows you to stream PS4 games from your console to the phone’s screen from November this year. Remarkably, it’s also waterproof up to 1.5m – so if you’re clumsy or just love the beach, this could be for you. From £469.99, shop.ee.co.uk
4/10 Nokia 930
The base model comes in at 32GB of storage. The main attraction to the Nokia Lumia range is a 4.5-inch ClearBlack screen with its brilliant contrast. The Microsoft Office app is among the best for any writer. For anyone who isn’t tied into Android or iOS this is a strong choice. Free on plans from £30.50/month, shop.vodafone.co.uk
5/10 Amazon Fire
Perfect for the Shazam generation you can point this phone – which works like any other Android phone – at pretty much anything and it will tell you what it is, how much it is, and where to buy it. Not for everyone, but if you’re a consumer it will likely change how you shop. Free, only on contract, amazon.co.uk
6/10 Moto G
Although it lacks the bells and whistles of the more expensive phones on the list, it’s still a great phone for its price, with access to emails, Facebook and more. Ideal for anyone who’s feeling the pinch this autumn. £90, shop.vodafone.co.uk
7/10 HTC One M8
The camera on the M8 has a special depth sensor for quicker focusing and clearer pictures. The phone itself is 90 per cent metal, so it doesn’t feel plasticy or liable to breaking. Also has front facing speakers and builtin amplifiers for those last barbecues of the season. £549.99, shop.emea.htc.com
8/10 LG G3
With its 5.5-inch screen the G3 is the same size as the iPhone 6 Plus but in an Android package. It has a 13MP camera with a laser focus, can charge wirelessly but isn’t waterproof or dust-resistant like some of the other phones on this list. £479.95, carphonewarehouse.com
9/10 Samsung Galaxy Alpha
The latest Samsung looks set to replace my personal phone. It’s got a 4.7-imch Super AMOLED screen but the main attraction is Samsung’s “Ultra Power-Saving Mode”, which turns the smart-beast’s screen into greyscale and limits the apps you can use, allowing it to run for days. From £449.99, shop.ee.co.uk
10/10 Nexus 5
Rumours of a new Google phone are rampant at the moment but their last offering, the Nexus 5, still packs a punch. The 5-inch screen is made from Gorilla Glass 3, so should resist a bunch of scratches. £299, play.google.com
A spokesperson for the UK government told the BBC that it does not comment on intelligence matters but that its spying work is carried out within a “strict legal and policy framework”.Reuse content