Surveillance & magic

:: politics, security, orwell, doomed

Clarke’s third law is that

any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

It does not apply to organisations who want to intercept communications: if it’s claimed that they can do something which requires magic, then in fact they can’t do that.

Donald Trump apparently thinks, or at least pretends to think, that Obama was tapping his phone. This article in The Guardian, among many others, points out how ridiculous these claims are. Unfortunately in doing so it perpetuates a common and stupid myth. In particular it contains this claim:

The security agencies can access electronic devices across the planet with ease. They can listen in to a target’s mobile, even if it is switched off.

Can they, in fact, do that? Well, yes, they probably can: you can only know if a modern mobile phone is really off if it has no power source, and since many mobile phones have batteries which can not be removed without destroying the device, you can never really know it is off without destroying it. So, once some suitable bit of software is in the phone it can be used like this.

Except that they can not use magic. If a phone is listening to a conversation and transmitting it to someone, then it is using power to do so: it is, in fact, making a call. And modern phones are not famous for their long battery lives: Apple claim ‘up to 14 hours’ talk time for the iPhone 7, and that claim will be an upper limit which applies to a phone which is brand new, has very good reception and so on. A more realistic estimate might be 7–10 hours, perhaps even less.

So, if someone is using your phone like this, you can tell if you are even slightly competent because its ‘standby’ time will be absolutely terrible. Even more bizarrely its battery life when ‘off’ will be terrible.

So if you think people might be using your phone like this you should:

  • turn it off;
  • do not keep it plugged in to the charger when it is off;
  • note how fast it runs down when in this state.

Because even government agencies can not do magic.

Of course the conspiracy theorists will claim that actually, mobile phones can have very long battery lives, but the technology is somehow being suppressed in order to make surveillance possible. Given that any company which makes use of this technology in its phones would make a huge amount of money, for this to be true all phone-making companies must be controlled by some shadowy Zionist world government. It used to be safe to deride people who believe this as the cranks they are. Unfortunately they seem to be winning: soon we will be being taught this stuff in schools, or at least those of us who have not gone to the gas chambers.