(ANTIMEDIA) — Following the presidential alert sent to millions of Americans’ phones on Wednesday, cybersecurity expert and former presidential candidate John McAfee tweeted a dire warning:
The "Presidential alerts": they are capable of accessing the E911 chip in your phones – giving them full access to your location, microphone, camera and every function of your phone. This not a rant, this is from me, still one of the leading cybersecurity experts. Wake up people!
— John McAfee (@officialmcafee) October 3, 2018
Unsurprisingly, the media has hardly investigated McAfee’s assertion, but it appears to be at least somewhat accurate. According to a 1998 Wired article, the E911 system is part of an FCC policy implemented that year:
“The impending first phase of the FCC’s rules is aimed at enabling emergency services personnel to quickly get information on the location of a cell phone user in the event of a 911 call. By April, all cellular and personal communications services providers will have to transmit to 911 operators and other ‘public safety answering points’ the telephone number and cell site location of any cell phone making a 911 call.”
Privacy advocates raised concerns about this development, with James Dempsey, senior staff counsel at the Center for Democracy and Technology at the time, asserting “your phone has become an ankle bracelet. Therefore we are urging the standard for government access be increased to a full probable cause standard. [Law enforcement agencies] have to have suspicion to believe that the person they are targeting is engaged in criminal activity.”
Wired explained that E911 “may be ripe for access by law enforcement for non-emergency needs,” concluding with Dempsey’s concern that “when law enforcement serves a court order, they could get location information through the requirements established by E911.”
Twenty years later, the police were using E911 to track a suspect without a warrant, and a court ruled this was acceptable. Though two judges dissented, the ruling stood. As Tech Dirt observed, “With its refusal to rehear this case, the Fifth Circuit has granted the government the luxury of interpreting “or other records” to include compelled real-time GPS tracking.”
Though it’s difficult to verify McAfee’s claim that E911 can access cell phone cameras, the system does appear to have the capability. Netgear’s line of cameras, called Arlo, was recently equipped with a service that allows E911 to access them.
Despite McAfee’s certainty, security technologist Bruce Schneier dismissed his claims as “ridiculous,” adding, “I don’t even know what an ‘E911 chip’ is. And—honestly—if the NSA wanted in your phone, they would be a lot more subtle than this.” Though it may not be a “chip,” the FCC itself notes that after 2000, all cell phones manufactured for sale in the United States had to have “a special method for processing 911 calls,” meaning the feature is built into the phone. “When a 911 call is made, the handset must override any programming that determines the handling of ordinary calls and must permit the call to be handled by any available carrier, regardless of whether the carrier is the customer’s preferred service provider,” the agency said, though it still doesn’t prove the existence of a “chip” or McAfee’s other claims.
Whether or not McAfee’s assertions are true, there is already ample evidence proving the government can access the data and devices of private citizens, and if nothing else, his tweet serves as a reminder of this omnipotence.
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