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Cellphone-hack surveillance techniques, long the preserve of government operatives, may have gone mainstream as a family in the western USA reports unusually competent cellphone stalking.

The News Tribune of Tacoma, Washington, carried reports last week of a harassment campaign bearing all the hallmarks of being orchestrated by frustrated teenage boys - except that it was technically sophisticated. An attractive 16-year-old girl and her family and friends have experienced eavesdropping via their mobile phones even when turned off, calls billed from their phones even when turned off, contact data lifted from phones remotely, ringtones replaced with threatening recordings, and so on.

This sort of thing is extremely unusual in normal life, and the News Tribune reports that local plods and cell-company reps have struggled to believe the beleaguered Kuykendall family and their fellow victims.

Nonetheless, others have learned about such things the hard way. US Army operators from the ultra-secretive "Intelligence Support Activity," (also known under its various rapidly changing codenames, for instance "Gray Fox" and "Centra Spike") were remotely activating Pablo Escobar's cellphone as long ago as the early '90s. British analysts are widely believed to have intercepted Osama bin Laden's cellphone traffic during the invasion of Afghanistan, and the "Activity" reportedly turned on al-Qaeda chief Qaed Senyan al-Harethi's phone remotely in 2002 so as to target him with a Hellfire missile from an overhead Predator drone.

More recently it has been revealed that the FBI routinely turn Mafia bosses' cellphones into remotely operated bugs. Business executives advised by competent security pros have long been in the habit of removing the batteries from their phones at vulnerable times or during important meetings. The mobile-phone-as-bug strategy has been public knowledge for a while now.

As for the hostile calls all seeming to come from the unfortunate Courtney Kuykendall's own phone, "cloning" attacks, in which a subscriber's identity is copied over the air from their phone and then used fraudulently - perhaps running up a huge bill in their name - are ordinary criminal stuff, and the local cops in Fircrest really ought to be up on that by now.

At least some spy software packages are available commercially, marketed at the suspicious spouse. And massive tech sophistication isn't always required: a sports science student at Loughborough University in the UK was able to intercept his love-object's comms through the simple method of knowing someone at the phone company. One might think that even local plods might be waking up to this sort of thing nowadays.

Ms Kuykendall and her allies could easily enough mount a little electronic-warfare campaign of their own, if the cops don't know how. One obvious tactic that would probably work in the UK would be enabling cell-tracking on one's own phone and then pulling the battery. Next time the cloned phone pops up - bingo. Target localised.

The next step after that for Pablo Escobar in 1993 was the arrival of the murderous "Bloque de Busqueda" hit team from the Colombian police, accompanied, according to rumour, by members of Delta Force. Shortly thereafter the Medellin drug lord was dead, supposedly shot while trying to escape. Senyan al-Harethi probably never even knew what hit him in 2002. If the Kuykendalls and their friends are as angry as one might expect, the results for their unknown harasser might be almost as bad.

The News Tribune report is here

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