Information Security
iphone nsa
Updated Sun, 31 Jul 2022 23:08:40 GMT

Snowden: "The NSA can remotely turn on your iPhone."

Watching the Snowden interview last night, Brian Williams asks him what degree of control the NSA has over smartphones -- in particular, whether or not they can remotely turn them on in order to collect data. Snowden replies "Yes" and goes on to say some scary things about the kinds of data that government agencies can collect.

I've never heard of this before. What kind of mechanism would facilitate this? Do iPhones have some kind of wake-on-LAN feature? Is this an actual feature which is well known, or conjecture by Snowden? I see this question provides concrete evidence in the case of smart TVs in addition to some hazy assertions that "anything is possible" -- has such a thing been demonstrated to exist?


There is a semantics issue at play here that make answering definitively very difficult.

What precisely did Mr. Snowden talk about when he said "Yes they can turn your phone on."

Did he mean activate a device that is in a shutdown (not standby, low-power-ready-to-function) state?

  • Doubtful.

Did he mean activate a device in a low-power, standby state?

  • Possibly. This is a no brainer, and exactly one of the features a "stand by" state is intended to facilitate. A carrier or gov agency exploiting it via code or warrant is nothing surprising.

Did he mean 'turn on the microphone or other sensors when an active call is not in progress, to allow recording of ambient noises and conversations near the device?'

  • Probably, and this is a known capability of service providers and thus government agencies for some time.[1]


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