Drug Dealers Swapping Down To Old Cellphones To Stay One Step Ahead In The 'Tech Arms Race'

from the to-win,-cede-ground dept

The FBI, along with seemingly every law enforcement agency in the country, wants a backdoor into every new, encrypted-by-default cellphone, arguing that without this, the "bad guys" will win the "tech arms race." The DOJ cited this same "arms race" in its (losing) argument against a warrant requirement for cellphone searches. To hear law enforcement tell it, today's criminals are racing far ahead of today's under-equipped cops, who are stymied by their billions of federal drug-chasing dollars, automatic license plate readers, warrantless GPS tracking, building interior-scanning radar devices and cell tower spoofers.

Meanwhile in the UK, some criminals have discovered one way to stay a step ahead of the cops is to take a few steps backward.

A dealer in Handsworth, Birmingham—who would only give his name as "K2"—told me: "I've got three Nokia 8210 phones and have been told they can be trusted, unlike these iPhones and new phones, which the police can easily [use to] find out where you've been… Every dealer I know uses old phones, and the Nokia 8210 is the one everyone wants because of how small it is and how long the battery lasts.
Old tech beats new tech, at least in some business ventures. The 8210 has 50-150 hours of standby time and an infrared port to quickly beam data from one phone to another (handy for burners or compromised phones). But other than its connection to cell towers, the phone provides no other means of connectivity: no Bluetooth, no WiFi, no WLAN. Nothing.

And while the police should be able to easily obtain call records, cell site location data (along with intercepting signals with IMSI catchers), simply grabbing the phone from a suspected dealer will only reveal the last ten calls sent and received, along with whatever's been saved to the address book. ('K2' halves his exposure by using one for sent calls and one for received.). They're durable, cheap and unlike today's smartphones, aren't "just GPS ankle monitors that double up as pizza-ordering devices," as Vice's Mike Zacharanda puts it.

These are the phones police have been able to access for the last 15 years, but it's only in the last couple that we've been hearing sustained noise about cellphones giving criminals a head start in the tech race. But if more criminals begin moving in the other direction, how will law enforcement respond? They'll have won the arms race but will have gained no ground. They'll be back in burner territory of yesteryear -- small, disposable phones that hold very limited amounts of incriminating evidence. So, it's back to regular police work, where the seized device doesn't perform the investigation for you. Which is the way it should be, even now, when technology has expanded far beyond a game of Snake and a 5-line monochrome screen.

Filed Under: drug dealers, old tech, surveillance


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  1. icon
    DocGerbil100 (profile), 29 Jan 2015 @ 5:15pm

    Re: Re:

    "I guarantee 100% that given enough information I can find enough coincidences to get anyone on any government watch list."

    I'm fairly sure you don't need anything as esoteric, expensive and work-intensive as information for that.

    All you need to do is say "X might be involved in Y" to a surveilling agency and they'll put them on their watch-list forever. They have every incentive to do so, no incentive not to and no incentive to ever take them off.

    They don't care about anything resembling an articulable reason and why should they? So long as the money keeps rolling in - and they have gaps in their surveillance that they can use as an unquestioned excuse for not catching any real terrorists - they're on the gravy train for life.

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