WHEN mobile phones first came into use, the big fear was radiation.
Governments and the big phone companies said everything was safe but the worry remained that all of that electromagnetic energy pouring in and out from our ear-held phones would cause brain tumours.
More recently, the biggest controversy over the new era of mobiles, the increasingly ubiquitous smartphones, has been over their security – or lack of it – in the face of apparently dedicated hacking by a plethora of global spy agencies.
The latest bout of smartphone controversy emerged this week in Germany, when a Wikileaks-linked computer security expert, Jacob Appelbaum, told a technology conference that the US National Security Agency had phone-hacking capabilities that were ‘‘even worse than your worst nightmares’’.
‘‘What I am going to show you today is wrist-slittingly depressing,’’ Appelbaum told his audience in a presentation that is available online, including from his Twitter feed.
Reports of his disclosures were carried by Fairfax Media yesterday but the in-depth coverage – some of it written by him and his associates – is in the English edition of the prominent German news outlet, Der Spiegel.
In a series of articles this week, Appelbaum and his associates outlined years of work by the NSA, some of it sourced from documents obtained by Wikileaks whistleblower Edward Snowden and some of it obtained through freedom of information applications. At least some of the documents were reportedly marked ‘‘FVEY’’, which is short for the ‘‘five eyes’’ group of nations; the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
Reading the Der Spiegel coverage and listening to Appelbaum’s speech, the smartphone hacking is presented as just one aspect of a massive NSA intelligence operation that aims at nothing less than total coverage of the entire global internet and telecommunications systems.
An arm of the NSA known as the Office of Tailored Access Operations, or TAO, reportedly began operations in 1997, when, as Der Spiegel says, ‘‘not even 2per cent of the world’s population had internet access and no-one had yet thought of Facebook, YouTube of Twitter’’.
The TAO operation began at Fort Meade, Maryland, and its ‘‘task was clear from the beginning – to work around the clock to find ways to hack into global communications traffic’’.
With the US already in the midst of a diplomatic row over phone-tapping – Der Spiegel said Angela Merkel had been a target since 2002, three years before she was elected chancellor – Appelbaum’s revelations seem destined to renew the controversy.
While a number of phone companies, including Apple, have responded to Appelbaum’s claims, none that I can find have disputed them.
As reported by Associated Press, Apple said it had never worked with the NSA to deliberately weaken its products, promising that it would ‘‘defend our customers from security attacks, regardless of who is behind them.’’
Importantly, the ‘‘malware’’ that the NSA is apparently able to implant on iPhones and other devices is apparently able to work whether or not the phone is turned on, enabling the agency to suck up every conversation, and every bit of information, that the targeted phone has carried.
Many of us, probably, will accept such surveillance as a necessary impost but it seems an enormous invasion of privacy, especially when you remember the stink that was caused in 1985 when the Hawke Labor government wanted individual information collated on an Australia Card, at least partly to deter tax avoidance and health and welfare fraud. If our governments do have access to all of our digital communication, then Big Brother truly is watching, and 2014 is indeed 1984.