Guest Post: Libby Fischer Hellmann Talks Modern Surveillance

Libby Fischer Hellmann’s latest novel is Jump Cut. She left a career in broadcast news in Washington, DC and moved to Chicago 35 years ago, where she, naturally, began to write gritty crime fiction. Thirteen novels and twenty short stories later, she claims they’ll take her out of the Windy City feet first. She has been nominated for many awards in the mystery writing community and has even won a few. More at


  • Guest Post from author Libby Fischer Hellmann 

Get Smart About Smart Phones

Smartphones are the go-to communication tool for pretty much everyone in the Western world these days. They’re powering the developing world too, letting more and more people access the web, make calls and send texts. All this communication creates a massive and complex information and data network. And opportunities for hackers – except, possibly, for iPhones, as Apple claims. In Jump Cut, the first Ellie Foreman thriller in ten years, Ellie finds herself under surveillance and needs to protect her communications, especially those on her smartphone. So I did some research on smartphones and how vulnerable they really are.

“In Jump Cut, the first Ellie Foreman thriller in ten years, Ellie finds herself under surveillance and needs to protect her communications, especially those on her smartphone. So I did some research on smartphones and how vulnerable they really are.”

Not Quite Smart Enough

Smart phones were originally developed without privacy or security, and they’re no good at protecting our personal communications. All the activity on smart phones can be watched and documented by governments and commercial interests, which we have little control over. They can even expose us to new surveillance risks like location tracking.

In fact, every time you use a mobile phone, however smart it is or isn’t, you leave a permanent record of the places you’ve been. Your mobile phone constantly talks about you, even when you’re not using it. And the privacy-enhancing measure technologies that have been added by manufacturers are paltry, according to the Surveillance Self-Defense website, which, btw, has practical tips for safe-guarding your cell phone communications. Built-in obsolescence exacerbates the problem. If your phone is old and not supported any more, with no new security fixes or updates, you’re even more vulnerable. Individual privacy software helps.

But it’s also useful to know how mobiles support surveillance in the first place. In this case, knowledge really is power.

The Intercept, the website of Edward Snowden supporters Glenn Greenwald, Jeremy Scahill and team, has investigated how governments and big business eavesdrop on smartphones. They were among the first to report that the toys and gadgets are moving from military use into civilian police and law enforcement to catch bad guys through devices called Sting-Rays, which “spoof” a cell phone tower and capture your location, even your calls and texts. But where do you draw the line as to what’s legal and what is an infringement of your civil rights? The Apple-FBI controversy is a case in point.

How Governments Compromise Smartphones

But there’s more. Other devices can:

  • Carry a list of up to 10,000 unique phone identifiers to pinpoint the locations of people of interest
  • Eavesdrop on calls
  • Spy on text messages
  • Extract media files
  • Extract address books and notes
  • Retrieve deleted SMS messages

Mobile Signal Tracking IMSI Catchers collect location data directly. Wi-Fi and Bluetooth Tracking take advantage of built-in radio transmitters with weaker signals than mobiles, which can be picked up at short range, perfect for figuring out when someone leaves a building.

You can also get location information leaks from apps and browsing. Apps often act as permission to track your location, and some transmit your location to a service provider, which means others can track your movements. Even all those quizzes we take on Facebook can suck up your private information.

Malicious software can spy on you through your phone. And governments are increasingly analyzing user data in search of patterns, for example, people who don’t use their mobile the ‘usual’ way or who DO take detailed security precautions.

What Should You Do?

At the very least, you, like Ellie Foreman, should have some kind of encryption on your smart phone. Check the Surveillance Self-Defense website for specific apps. They come with different levels of security depending on your need for privacy. The best provide end-to-end encryption. Apple maintains its encryption on the I-Phone 6 is more than enough. I guess time will tell on that.

The FBI’s request to Apple might sound reasonable at first glance. But the problem is precedent. The Feds say they only want to be able to access just one device used by terrorists. But there’s no technical or legal reason for believing this is a “one-off” case. Other requests are already coming through the courts. Which is exactly what Apple says would happen. And while it has assisted law enforcement in the past, they claim this is a different issue.

The FBI counters by saying it isn’t asking Apple to reveal their encryption process, or break it. They don’t want the key, which Apple doesn’t have anyway. What the FBI wants is for Apple to make it easier to guess the key. Apple has responded that it doesn’t matter. Once it’s been done once, the precedent is there.

Do you think current laws protect civilians? Or is there room for improvement? A Chicago judge seems to think there is. In January, she ruled that the records pertaining to the police’s use of Stingrays need to be made public.

In the meantime, let’s be careful out there.
You can find copies of Libby Fischer Hellmann’s latest on our shelves and via

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