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NSA slides reveal: iPhone users are all ZOMBIES

OK, not literally. Plus: Our favourite spooks show us how to hack an iPhone – report

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Spooks at the US National Security Agency (NSA) can't believe we're all paying for the equipment it's using to spy on us, describing Steve Jobs as Big Brother and iPhone buyers as "zombies".

That assertion comes from NSA documents leaked to Germany's Spiegel Online.

The self-promoting presentation, purportedly an internal NSA report from 2010 titled "Exploring Current Trends, Targets and Techniques", includes a number of slides presenting snapshots of grinning iPhone-brandishing customers as analogous to the "zombies" brainwashed by Big Brother – in a reference to George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four.

The argument is backed up with selfies taken by a (foreign) government official (apparently on his couch at home in front of the TV) and lifted from his iPhone.

A slide from a second presentation, "Your target is using a BlackBerry? Now what?", then presents details of how best to attack the hitherto invulnerable Canadian smartphone platform.

The fact that the NSA has teams cracking mobile operating systems should surprise no one: these people are paid to spy so it would be disingenuous to attack them for it, but the details of their progress should interest anyone who has wondered just how secure our communications are should a government decide to start looking.

Almost all communications go through a server of some sort, and in the normal run of things the authorities just sequester that server. Tapping phone calls or messages is much easier at the server, and most countries have lawful intercept legislation which permits this with some from of judicial oversight. The United States' NSA has the provision to work outside national borders, however, so it might need to take a less public approach.

How to hack an iPhone

When it comes to an iPhone, the best approach, according to the documents seen by Spiegel Online, is hacking the computer to which it is connected. Synchronised data is a lot easier to attack, lacking the hardware protection available on mobile platforms, so get into their PC, lift the data and perhaps even subvert the iPhone from there.

For intercepting BlackBerry communications, where the Blackberry Enterprise Server is beyond reach, the NSA apparently had an attack which could "see and read SMS traffic" until 2009, but were then stymied by an update from RIM. That left them in the dark until the UK's GCHQ apparently came to the rescue a year later with an attack which regained access to that data, but BlackBerry email still requires "sustained" operation from the specialist "Tailored Access Operation" to break the encryption.

Many attacks seem to depend on getting users to open attachments or visit dodgy websites, vectors of attack well known in the security business. The NSA presentation calls this "Nomophobia", or "no phone phobia", as mobile users haven't yet learnt to worry about their security.

GSM and CDMA are both listed as being broken, though it's not clear if nomophobia is the mechanism of attack. Even if it isn't it's not very shocking; GSM has very strong encryption covering authentication, making it hard to spoof a call, but the session keys used to encrypt normal conversations have previously proved vulnerable.

Windows Phone users... security through obscurity

But what's really surprising is the lack of information on Android or Windows Phone, which should be of interest given the presentation asserts that Nokia is the extremists' platform of preference, with Apple coming in third and BlackBerry in ninth - almost as though the NSA was more interested in listening to foreign diplomats than terrorist cells.

That might not be it – perhaps Android is so insecure it's not worth mentioning, or the extremists are big fans of the Asha range, or perhaps that session was in the afternoon and Spiegel Online's source only attended in the morning, but either way it seems that if the NSA wants to know everything you see and hear then it probably will. ®

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

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