It could become frighteningly easy for your neighbors to tap your texts and phone calls

By Virginia K. Smith  | March 14, 2016 - 9:59AM

Like it or not, we seem to be living in an age when digital snooping is de rigeur, whether it's by law enforcement agencies, hackers, and identity thieves. And digital peepers are about to have a scary, significant new option: the ability to monitor your phone calls and texts with equipment once reserved for police and the FBI.

As Bloomberg reported last week in a fascinating (and utterly terrifying) article, there's been debate (and numerous legal cases) for several years now over devices known as stingray surveillance technology, which can be used to trick cell phones into revealing their locations, and even have the capability of intercepting your voice and text communications. In other words, it's a tool that can turn your phone into a glorified tracking device, and spy on all your conversations.

Law enforcement agents have frequently used them to track down suspected criminals, which can constitute an illegal search—Washington State now has legislation requiring police to obtain a warrant before locating someone with stingray, and the ACLU has been pressing for more regulations for some time now. (Stingray use has also reared its head at protests in recent years, with police using the devices to mintor members of the crowd.)

But as this kind of technology gets increasingly easy for anyone with some tech savvy and internet access to either build or purchase, Bloomberg reporter Robert Kolker writes, "the person hacking into your cell phone might not be the police or the FBI. It could be your next-door neighbor." Yikes.

Granted, it'd have to be a neighbor with at least $1,500 to lay out and a vested interest in spying on the building, but as capitalism does its job, access is only likely to get easier. "Companies are always going to try to find new markets for their technologies," one attorney told the site. "And there are lots of people who want to spy on their neighbors or their spouses or girlfriends." (And one shudders to think how this could come into play in, say, an acrimonious board dispute.)

And it's already easy enough for anyone who's so inclined to mess with your phone. Consider the recent case in Chicago reported by Gizmodo (equal parts amusing and disturbing) of a man who was busted for jamming phone signals on city transit, simply because it annoyed him to have to listen to phone conversations on the commute.

While there is one Android app called SnoopSnitch that'll detect stingray technology operating in an area, there's not much you can really do to stop this kind of surveillance from accessing your phone, short of putting it into airplane mode or simply turning it off. And of course, there are the usual digital best practices to consider, namely, making your apartment's wifi network password protected, and treating public networks with extreme caution. (More tips on that from Digital Trends.)

Between this and recent stories about hidden surveillance cameras in buildings, it's all enough to make you long for the days of simply overhearing things through your building's paper-thin walls.



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