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Don’t Fuck It Up 6: OPSEC with Phones

Zoz underscores the immense amount of personally identifiable data that cell phones can leak and provides recommendations on using burner phones securely.

The stuff being leaked

The stuff being leaked

Let’s move to phones. What does that little Benedict Arnold in your pocket do to give you away? So much frickin’ stuff (see right-hand image). The metadata of all your calls and your location information is available to all the federal agencies, being given to them straight by the phone companies. Also location from the Exif data in the photos you take. They leak your contact lists, offer up lists of the WiFi networks you’ve accessed to anyone who’s listening in that area; unique identifiers such as IMEIs, UDIDs and so on; preference cookies from browsers; sometimes the contents of your searches if you do them in the clear.

The older devices have weak crypto, especially the ones that have a mixed version base (Android). Web browsers on these tiny devices have limited RAM and cache, so they are constantly reloading frickin’ tabs as fast as they can; and so, everything that you’ve done recently, when you move to a different network, gets re-exposed. Autoconnect, the WiFi Pineapple’s best friend: “Oh, hello ATT WiFi! Hello XFINITY WiFi! I remember you!” Apps, of course, are leaking all kinds of shit. It all adds up to a unique identifier for you and a pattern of your life.

Phones are extensively tracked

Phones are extensively tracked

The agencies monitor this kind of stuff constantly (see left-hand image), looking especially for concurrent presence and the on / off patterns of your phones. I’m kind of famous for not carrying a cell phone. That’s because I don’t like publicly associating myself with criminal organizations, by which I mean, of course, the phone companies. But there’s one time a year I carry a phone. It’s this little 7-year-old Nokia feature phone. It must look great in the metadata store, because every time this phone is used it’s constantly surrounded by thousands of notorious hackers.

Converged analysis of smartphone devices

Converged analysis of smartphone devices

But for the secret police, smartphones are the best gift they could ever get (see right-hand image). It’s like Christmas, Hanukkah, and Steak and Blowjob Day, all rolled up into one big spy orgasm. Their perfect scenario is just a very-very simple thing. A simple photo share that happens millions of times a day – they get everything I just mentioned, and more. They know this, and yet even the spy agencies manage to fuck it up.

The Abu Omar abduction case

The Abu Omar abduction case

Here we go with the CIA: the February 2003 rendition of Egyptian cleric Abu Omar from Italy (see left-hand image). The police were able to reconstruct a minute-by-minute rundown of that abduction from the cell phone records. 25 CIA employees and one United States Air Force lieutenant colonel were named and charged by the Italian authorities for pulling this guy off the streets, illegally abducting him and spearing him out of the country. They did this because the phones were geo-located near the abduction at the time of the abduction. They found that the phones had called one another; they had even called numbers in the U.S., like family members. They never removed their phone batteries. They geo-located their phones to the hotels at night, checked them against the registration records. Many of them used their real names. Some even made sure that their hotel stay was registered against their real frequent flyer numbers so they got the miles.

If you are carrying a personal tracking device, aka cell phone, you have probably already fucked it up.

So, if you are going to use a burner phone under this kind of capacity to massively correlate every phone that’s in use all the time, then you need to know what to do to not fuck it up. In fact, if you are carrying a personal tracking device, aka cell phone, you have probably already fucked it up. But here’s what you’ve got to do to use a burner phone. Agencies specifically look in the traffic to identify burners, looking for things like length of time from activation till when they go away and are never used again; patterns of use – trying to identify burners’ cycling if they get used again. Fingerprinting of phones – EFF is suing the NSA about this right now. They log the signal strength at cell towers to get your location. Every time the phone is turned on or moves, there’s a record. And the number that is used to activate the phone or the SIM is also recorded. And also the purchases – they’ll go back to security video in the Walmart or wherever you got it from.

The do's with burner phones

The do’s with burner phones

So here’s what you’ve got to do if you want to use a burner phone securely (see right-hand image). Purchase them a long time in advance before the operation. Register them far away from the operation’s area. Use false information when you register them. Go with dumb or feature phones instead of smartphones. Remove the battery when you’re not using it. Fill the phone with fake contacts. Use each one as little as possible. Switch phones when you switch locations, and leave the phone at that location so that you don’t fuck it up. Call unrelated numbers so that there’s a different pattern of network per a phone. And remember the purpose for each phone. And finally, destroy it when you’re finished, or you can do what McAfee does, when he said yesterday: “Tape it to the bottom of a long-distance 18 wheeler and let it go for a ride.” I’m not saying that’s the best way to do it, because eventually someone is going to find it and then they will do forensics on it, so think about that.

The don'ts

The don’ts

Don’t ever: turn a phone on in a location that you can be placed at; allow your phone to be on at the same time or place as another phone that you own; call the same non-burner phone from multiple burners; store any of your real contacts on that phone (see right-hand image). Matching entry / exit point – we know specifically they look for that, so don’t match the last use and first use of phones, overlap it. Don’t tie them to online services that can bridge that phone metadata, for example, two-factor authentication on Gmail accounts. Think what you would do to red team of massive database of location, time, call destination and call length metadata. Anonymity is hard. If you can’t go to this much trouble to not fuck it up, then evaluate whether the risks you’re taking are worth it.
 

Read previous: Don’t Fuck It Up 5: The Silk Road and Dread Pirate Roberts Story

Read next: Don’t Fuck It Up 7: Secure Messaging

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