A trove of documents about CIA hacking tools released by Wikileaks and President Trump’s recent tweet claiming President Obama tapped his phone has caused many to ask, could the government be spying on me?
Three Thing to Know
- While it is absolutely feasible for your calls to be intercepted by the U.S. government, that doesn’t mean they are — at least not on purpose. Still, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t worry.
- Foreign governments, hackers, and crooks might listen to your calls using malware to compromise your phone.
- There are steps you can take to foil the bad guys such as encrypted calling apps and good old fashioned common sense.
Not Without a Warrant (in theory)
The U.S. government has vast signals intelligence capabilities, but by law it cannot intentionally listen in on U.S. ‘persons’ (citizens and legal prominent residents) without a warrant. To eavesdrop on your calls, the government would first need a warrant. To get it, they’ll need to persuade a judge that probable cause exists that you’ve committed a serious crime. Or, if they suspect you are an agent of a foreign power, they can also get what’s called a FISA warrant from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. Recently, legislative reforms further restricted federal surveillance powers and the NSA’s bulk metadata collection.
However, the government routinely eavesdrops on foreigners’ phone calls. If your call is to a foreign national, especially one of interest to our intelligence services, there’s a chance the government could be listening. This is probably how they knew about the calls between Michael Flynn and Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak. It may also be the source of reports of calls between Russians and associates of Donald Trump (none of which have demonstrated any evidence of wrongdoing).
However, US intelligence agencies are supposed to do their best to ignore your side of the conversation under so-called “minimization” procedures intended to protect the privacy of Americans. Unless it is of significant intelligence value that the call was with you (as there was with Flynn), intelligence analysts are supposed to redact your name from any intelligence reports based on it.
Somebody Else Might Be Listening
Foreign governments, on the other hand, could care less about your privacy and have no such need for warrants. Their capabilities to intercept calls are probably more limited, at least within the U.S., but in their own countries, you can bet they do. Certainly when traveling overseas, and possibly in the U.S, it’s not unreasonable to assume your call might be intercepted.
Even if your call isn’t picked-up over the air, hackers, governments and other bad guys could still tap your conversation using malware. Malicious software can allow the bad guys to not only listen to your calls, but essentially look over your shoulder. Some malware will allow a hacker to see and hear everything you do on your phone. They can log everything you type, including your passwords, and even turn your phone into a remote listening post, transmitting audio and video back to a bad hombre on the other end. If your phone is compromised at the source, encrypting your communications with apps like Signal won’t do much good.
To be safe, you can use an app like Signal that encrypts calls and texts. So, long as your phone itself isn’t compromised, anyone who intercepts your call will get only gibberish. If you’re careful, you can make it far less likely your phone is hijacked.
Keep your phone’s software updated. Updates often contain security fixes that patch vulnerabilities that hackers could take advantage of. Be very careful about clicking on odd links or email attachments, even if it looks valid. Even if an email looks valid, appearing as though it is from say your bank or your email provider, asking you to click a link, don’t do it. Those links could install spyware or capture your password if you use the link to log in. Instead, open your browser and access the web site directly. This technique, known as “spearfishing,” was how Russian hackers were able to compromise Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman John Podesta’s email.
Even if you have no reason to suspect the government is spying on on you, it’s still a good idea to take precautions. Hackers trying to steal your credit card number or your identity use some of the same techniques. A connected world, as marvelous as it is, means you have to be a little more careful too.