Treat Your Smartphone Like Hannibal Lecter
The devices in our pockets are dangerous, manipulative, and ready to turn against us. Why don't we act like it?
Psychopaths are a dangerous lot. They lie as easily as they breathe and when they’re not busy gaslighting people they’re hunting for bits of sensitive information to exploit later on. Clinical therapists recommend that the best way to deal with psychopaths is to avoid them.
Yet most people are loath to abandon the little monster that is the smartphone. Particularly denizens of the Beltway. These users would be well advised take a sober look at their mobile devices and acknowledge the true nature of what they’re dealing with.
The Mighty Wurlitzer Reborn
In the years leading up to World War II the German government launched a campaign to put a low-cost radio in every household. The end result was the “People’s Radio” or Volksempfänger—a government-subsidized receiver which utilized what was then cutting-edge technology to flood the airwaves with propaganda. These little boxes served as the primary interface between the ruling elites and the rest of German society.
Look closely and a similar pattern emerges circa 2020. Only now everyone is staring down at their palms. Captivated by social media as they caress thin, handheld screens with gentle flicks. Though technology has evolved, the goal remains the same: to spin carefully tailored narratives that subconsciously produce approval while leading onlookers to believe that they do so of their own free will. The father of modern propaganda, Edward Bernays, referred to this process as the “engineering of consent.”
Spies are notorious for disseminating propaganda. The Central Intelligence Agency has a long and storied history of conducting psychological operations (PSYOP). Indeed the agency was so adroit in this domain that one senior official likened its clandestine messaging apparatus to a “Mighty Wurlitzer.”
In the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq, the United States commenced Operation Earnest Voice, conscripting an army of digital sock puppets to infiltrate social media groups abroad and promote the war on terror. Similar efforts continue to this day with other countries joining the fray. The 2016 presidential election witnessed the handiwork of Russian “active measures,” which employed social media to sow discord in the body politic and, as one report put it, “undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process.”
The underlying playbook isn’t necessarily new. An article in the New Yorkerobserves that “for half a century, Soviet intelligence backed Western protest movements whose leaders were often unaware that they were benefitting from K.G.B. support.” According to former intelligence officers the basic recipe is as follows: spies identify fault lines, reach out to aggrieved segments of the population, fan the flames, offer material support, justify violence with glittering generalities, and martyr the dead. What’s new is the venue that spies are entering to do so.
In 2017 the mainstream press whipped itself into a lather about “Russian Meddling.” But it’s crucial to recognize that, in terms of dollars spent, the relatively meager sums spent by Russian spooks to stir the pot are dwarfed by more prolific domestic programs.
Michael Bloomberg’s primary run in 2020 comes to mind. One man’s failed attempt to purchase the presidency flushed approximately half a billion dollars down the pipes. Russian spy chiefs can only dream of that kind of operational budget. And Bloomberg is just one politically active billionaire among dozens in the United States. Robert Mercer invested $15 million to develop social media tools to influence U.S. voters—something to keep in mind when candidates externalize their lack of success on a shadowy third party.
The Thought Police are Here
It’s not just the information which you read that makes a difference, though. It’s also what you don’t read. Sometimes this is a matter of official secrecy, the result of a burgeoning national security complex which is so vast and compartmented that it escapes congressional oversight. Other times vital facts are omitted because media outlets are acting as gatekeepers. Recall how editors at the New York Times knowingly sat on James Risen’s story about NSA surveillance. Possibly a favor to the security establishment that was extended with the expectation of special access later on.
The raging popularity of social media has enabled the major league players of Silicon Valley to rival their forerunners in the press. Big Tech’s approach has been incremental, starting with outliers on the fringe. For example, it goes without saying that Alex Jones is inflammatory and his outlandish beliefs regarding aliens and psychedelic drugs put David Icke to shame. So it may not have raised many eyebrows when he was banned for life from YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter.
But what happens when a larger trend comes into focus? Like when Google was caught developing a censored search engine, known as Dragonfly, for deployment in China. Or when moderators move from Alex Jones to James Woods. Or when Facebook starts banning pages and accounts representing QAnon, a movement which the mainstream press casts as a group of gullible conspiracy theorists.
On a side note, it’s not like there are factual grounds for QAnon’s worldview. What with all the sexual predators among the elites (e.g. Harvey Weinstein, Jeffrey Epstein, Bill Clinton, Kevin Spacey, Woody Allen). And only a complete idiot would believe that there are insiders who are secretly plotting against the President. So when Netflix openly promotes a movie like “Cuties” there’s absolutely no reason for people to look around and conclude that there might be something to QAnon’s rambling. Right? Whew, what a relief we got that all cleared up.
Taking recent events into consideration, there have been clams of widespread ideological bias. These are difficult to verify because scientifically rigorous data on censorship is rare, limiting public knowledge to a series of anecdotal cases rather than a broader systemic analysis. Furthermore, the nuts and bolts of the automated algorithms and human processes leveraged by Big Tech are confidential. All of this makes allegations of partiality worthy of official investigation.
Big Brother is Watching You Watch
Due to their versatility, smartphones are incredible tracking devices. They generate a wide range of location data that’s derived from sources like GPS, Wi-Fi access points, infrared sensors, Bluetooth beacons, and cellular carrier networks. Everywhere these devices go, they’re quietly interacting with their environment, leaving a trail of legally admissible forensic evidence—even in cases where people mistakenly believe that they can disable it.
Silicon Valley claims that they only want to allow companies to show you ads, but the police certainly seem to have a healthy interest in this kind of information—especially during periods of civil unrest.
And it’s not just data that smartphones transmit to their surroundings. Over time, as personal data accumulates, smartphones become a deep reservoir of sensitive information: photographs, video footage, email, instant messaging, and cloud storage credentials, just to name a few. Combine this with the aforementioned tracking capabilities and it’s no surprise that smartphones are prized as intelligence targets.
Even in the paranoid scenario of a one-time burner phone activated out in the boonies, voice recognition software is now standard fare amongst intelligence services. The NSA used this technology to hunt Saddam Hussein. They’ve had almost two decades since then to perfect their arsenal. Ergo the simple act of speaking on a telephone may be enough to compromise security, which may explain the rising popularity of encrypted messaging apps like Telegram, Signal, and WhatsApp.
Sadly, what people don’t understand is that these well-known “secure” messaging applications have a ten-story bullseye plastered on them, and spies have already made substantial progress towards defeating them. For instance, researchers have found that service providers can surreptitiously add new users into private messaging groups. These invisible guests can then eavesdrop on the group’s “secure” messages, rendering encryption useless.
You may be thinking: “But companies like Apple wouldn’t cooperate, would they?” In light of the NSA’s Prism program it would be naïve to presume that somehow clandestine assistance and spymaster bonhomie magically ground to a halt. The C-suites are well aware of what happened to Lavabit.
Using malware is another technique which has been applied with ample success, both by the American intelligence community and foreign security services. It’s so popular that an entire industry has emerged to cater to the market demand for commercial hacking tools. Your author can attest to this. Once spies have a foothold on your phone they can do whatever they want, whether data is encrypted or not. If spies want access, they’ll get it. So, “Is this smart phone secure?” is the wrong question. The correct one is, “Which set of intelligence agencies have access?”
Do Not Touch or Approach the Glass
The evangelists of Silicon Valley like to market technology as a means of liberation—a lucrative Ponzi scheme where every problem that technology creates must be solved with ever more technology. Sadly, recent history demonstrates that technology has proven to be far more effective as a means of control. Entire geographic regions are now subject to the authoritarian tools that prophets like George Orwell and Aldous Huxley warned about, leading to a future where everyone carries a pocket-sized telescreen.
Clearly the utility of smartphones is a lure. Just like Hannibal Lecter, these blobs of metal and plastic find novel ways to make themselves useful while they silently steal our autonomy and pursue ulterior motives. Honestly, one can only marvel at the sheer cunning of a sales pitch which convinces iPhone “zombies” to literally pay for their own surveillance and indoctrination. The contrarians who elect to place liberty above convenience will need to tread carefully. In a brave new world of thought crime and newspeak, here there be monsters.
Bill Blunden is an independent investigator focusing on information security, anti-forensics, and institutional analysis. He is the author of several books, including The Rootkit Arsenal and Behold a Pale Farce: Cyberwar, Threat Inflation, and the Malware-Industrial Complex. Bill is the lead investigator at Below Gotham Labs.