Blog: Opinions

Is that a bug in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?

Tom Roberts 05 Nov 2013

The recent news around the NSA has concerned some while others have shrugged the whole thing off as “really not surprised” but it has made me wonder exactly how far this might go. With some simple apps you can easily turn your mobile into a bugging device. This can allow someone to covertly record or film someone without their express knowledge or permission. “So what” you might say, “I have nothing to hide.” And I would say that might be true for the majority of situations but there is a degree of expected privacy in some of our day to day dealings. Would, for instance, you be happy if every single aspect of your day was recorded and could be played back at any time in your future as evidence against you.

Before you think I have something to hide, let’s take some common examples where people not only lie but are in essence expected to lie. If your partner asks “Does my bum look big in this” you may come back with a variety of responses but most of them would be aimed at making your partner feel appreciated or at least not a response that made them feel ugly. This is an acceptable “white lie” and one that very few people would find an issue with it.

If however, you were recorded in a “private” conversation at work with a colleague then you might raise an eyebrow. What if the context of such a recording is not available and only aspects of a conversation were presented as “evidence”. This could mean that a humorous comment might be taken out of context as a slur or worse. I suppose the question I am really asking is would you be happy if at any moment in your life you could be presented as a recording. Would you constantly be monitoring what you say just in case someone was recording the conversation?

The harsh truth is that technology already now exists and is within the grasp of most people financially. Turning your phone into a covert bug is as simple as typing “spy” into the search field of your favourite mobile apps store and you will be presented with a variety of real (and fake) apps that can be used to secretly record or film people either locally or remotely.

As an example most people don’t realise your phone has a built in motion sensor which can be tied together with the camera function to create either a “burglar alarm” or a clever way to record your laptop password if you fail to spot that phone casually placed on your desk. Some are obvious jokes, others come with so few instructions you have to know what the app does before you download it but some are professionally made and packaged “spy kits” and for prices often less than £5.

These are not classed as malware and even a “good practice” security policy applied to a BYOD won’t often blacklist these unless there has been a specific incident that raises concerns. As such, because many people will take the view “if the device allows it, then it must be ok” they feel that there are no issues with downloading and using this type of app.

And before you feel this is illegal and that any employee that might record you might be in violation of various data protection acts, I’m afraid to say that the courts are even in two minds about this and the case of Vaughan Vs the council of Lewisham (2013) went to the side of the of the person doing the bugging as opposed to supporting the rights of the person being bugged. It basically said that one party has the right to record without permission as long as they are in attendance, the only thing they cannot do is continue to record after they leave.

Remember this next time you are in an interview, on a date, having a “private” conversation at work, or a variety of other times when one party may have a vested interest in keeping a record of what happened. More and more people are recognising that having “evidence” of a conversation or even just part of it can be career ending for some, fame creating for others, or just a means of creating mischief or enough news worthiness to bring the “no smoke without fire” types into the debate.

The “plebgate” incident of September 2012 and the subsequent to’ing and fro’ing shows the power that recording conversations can have. If Andrew Mitchell had not recorded himself apologising for swearing, and denying using the word “pleb” in a meeting in 2012 the IPPC wouldn’t have believed that the police officers had given a false account of the meeting.

We, as a society, don’t seemed overly upset or angered by the fact that central government agencies are watching our online activity but do we have the same feeling about everyone else?