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Can You Hear Me Now?

December 05, 2006 3:38 PM

Nsa_phone2_060516_nr_2 Cell phone users, beware.  The FBI can listen to everything you say, even when the cell phone is turned off.

A recent court ruling in a case against the Genovese crime family revealed that the FBI has the ability from a remote location to activate a cell phone and turn its microphone into a listening device that transmits to an FBI listening post, a method known as a "roving bug."  Experts say the only way to defeat it is to remove the cell phone battery.

"The FBI can access cell phones and modify them remotely without ever having to physically handle them," James Atkinson, a counterintelligence security consultant, told ABC News.  "Any recently manufactured cell phone has a built-in tracking device, which can allow eavesdroppers to pinpoint someone's location to within just a few feet," he added.

According to the recent court ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Lewis Kaplan, "The device functioned whether the phone was powered on or off, intercepting conversations within its range wherever it happened to be."   

The court ruling denied motions by 10 defendants to suppress the conversations obtained by "roving bugs" on the phones of John Ardito, a high-ranking member of the family, and Peter Peluso, an attorney and close associate of Ardito, who later cooperated with the government.  The "roving bugs" were approved by a judge after the more conventional bugs planted at specified locations were discovered by members of the crime family, who then started to conduct their business dealings in several additional locations, including more restaurants, cars, a doctor's office and public streets.

"The courts have given law enforcement a blank check for surveillance," Richard Rehbock, attorney for defendant John Ardito, told ABC News.

Judge Kaplan's ruling said otherwise. "While a mobile device makes interception easier and less costly to accomplish than a stationary one, this does not mean that it implicated new or different privacy concerns." He continued, "It simply dispenses with the need for repeated installations and surreptitious entries into buildings.  It does not invade zones of privacy that the government could not reach by more conventional means."

But Rehbock disagrees.  "Big Brother is upon us...1984 happened a long time ago," he said, referring to the George Orwell futuristic novel "1984," which described a society whose members were closely watched by those in power and was published in 1949.

The FBI maintains the methods used in its investigation of the Genovese family are within the law.  "The FBI does not discuss sensitive surveillance techniques other than to emphasize that any electronic surveillance is done pursuant to a court order and ongoing judicial scrutiny,"  Agent Jim Margolin told ABC News.

December 5, 2006 | Permalink | User Comments (172)

User Comments

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"Cell phone users, beware. The FBI can listen to everything you say, even when the cell phone is turned off."

This is the worst kind of sensational journalism, implying that the FBI is listening into everybody's cell phone calls. Only in the last sentence do you let the reader know that the FBI "maintains" it strictly observes the law and only engages in surveillance after obtaining a warrant from a judge(requiring evidence of probable cause that a crime has been committed and this person committed it). Why not just say "Homeowners Beware-The FBI can come in your house and search all your belongings!!!!"

Posted by: Chase | Dec 5, 2006 4:05:53 PM

What a fantastic thing to know the government can do. Actually, I've heard about this before, from people I know who work for different federal agencies who've said when they do anything personal, they always leave their phone at home because someone could listen in (even with it off). I thought it was just talk, but here's the proof.

The potential for abuse or misuse of this is staggering. Which says nothing of what could happen if a band of geeks in a basement decipher exactly how this is done. The potential for real damage to people's lives could be incalculable.

Why would manufacturers even allow for this type of function? I'm sure there's industry taxbreaks involves somewhere and dire pleas of national security. In the process, nothing you say can really be private.

Posted by: corbett | Dec 5, 2006 4:17:26 PM

If you don’t want a dictatorship then stop building one!

Posted by: Jim J. Donaldson | Dec 5, 2006 4:19:48 PM

Thanks again news media! Now the bad guys know they have to leave their cell phones in the bathroom while they discuss their criminal intentions! Are there No secrets in the military or law enforcement anymore?

Posted by: Gerald | Dec 5, 2006 4:32:04 PM

We are officially turning into East Germany.

Posted by: Tony | Dec 5, 2006 4:35:30 PM

Anyone who thinks this is ok, needs to move to China or Russia.

Don't give me the "if you're not doing anything wrong..." spiel. This is Big Brother, 1984. Sick sick sick.

Posted by: JoshDestardi | Dec 5, 2006 4:47:10 PM

This is insane that this judge gave the government this kind of blank power to surveil. What a nut job.

Posted by: Mary | Dec 5, 2006 5:12:18 PM

Having worked for the government in my past, this is just one more thing that reminds me of the fact that the general public has really no idea what-so-ever of how big our government is and what it is capable of. I think America needs to wake up and realize that our government is so big and so deep into things that it denies that it would shock us all. Kinda sounds like that movie V for Vendetta, doesn't it ? So ask yourselves, are we really as free as you think we are ?

Posted by: Todd | Dec 5, 2006 5:14:14 PM

What about ONSTAR? I guess the FBI can listen to every conversation while we are driving in our cars, doing business transactions or making out with our girlfriends?

Posted by: John Doe | Dec 5, 2006 5:26:03 PM

I believe that we as Americans must do everything within our power to protect each other using any and all methods available. Of course I am directing this at terrorists not rendomly abusing the intent of the law. I only hope the government doesn't abuse this power as they have in the past.

Posted by: David Shapiro | Dec 5, 2006 5:27:54 PM

This ia a crock. ABC news should do more checking before publishing a story!

Posted by: noneya | Dec 5, 2006 5:40:25 PM

Warrants? We don't need no stinking warrants.

Posted by: Agent Smith | Dec 5, 2006 5:43:36 PM

That was a STOOOOPID vote. According to the article the FBI gained access through a judge to use this procedure. They could and can do that by bugging a home or office. No difference as long as they got the courts approval. Orwellian? Doubt it since, we as individuals open our lives to "Big Brother" or scum of the earth voluntarily by subcribing to cell phones and internet. Dont get a cell or access to the net!

Posted by: PSC57 | Dec 5, 2006 5:59:24 PM

I've read 1984 three times. Big Brother IS upon us. I recommend the book highly.

Posted by: Bryan | Dec 5, 2006 6:34:14 PM

How far away does the listening post have to be? I don't think they can with a encrypted satellite phone. Can you give me details? I need the info for a future illegal wire tap, right to privacy court case. Thanks Lucy.

Posted by: Lucy | Dec 5, 2006 6:37:45 PM

I think that it is so cool but if you do that then I would hope that if you heard somthing personal then you wouldn't tell everyone! I would hate to bye a phone and then have the whole world find out somthing personal!!! It will be able to find out people that might try to attcak our nation! I like it as long as nothing is repeted!!

Posted by: Christina | Dec 5, 2006 7:09:24 PM

No, i dont' think it's fair.
Everyone has personal lives that don't want to be invaded.
I understand if the government is trying to keep us safe, but this has gone too far.

Posted by: Chrys | Dec 5, 2006 7:09:42 PM

No, but what I would like to know is why did the FBI, CIA need the blessings of congress to wiretap when they could just rove the suspected terrorist? Lucy

Posted by: Lucy | Dec 5, 2006 7:12:57 PM

If you're not doing anything wrong, then you should have no worries about being bugged!

Posted by: Julie | Dec 5, 2006 7:17:48 PM

Cell phones are electronic loudspeakers. Acitve calls have allways been intercepted. No one had a problem some years ago when the Israely government killed a terrorist by blowing up his cell phone. Since these phones are transmitters it is easy to defeat the tracking feature. Simply intercept the transmitted signal either by defeating the antennae or putting the unit in a metal box.

Posted by: thomas | Dec 5, 2006 7:29:54 PM

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