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US spies hacked our phones over the air, claim pipeline protesters

Targeting oil demo may have been training exercise for snoops, it is feared

For the past year or so, protesters in North Dakota, America, have been trying to prevent an oil pipeline from being built through Native Americans’ sacred land.

As a result, they’ve gone through an astonishing level of electronic surveillance while there, it is claimed.

For instance, fake cellphone towers were used to listen in on personal conversations, draining batteries in the process, leaders of the protest told the BSides security conference in Las Vegas on Tuesday. The protesters also said they saw drones shot down, and had their phone signals jammed and handhelds hacked.

The demonstrations ended in February, after folks either left or were cuffed and taken away, allowing the Dakota Access Pipeline to be built and activated by June.

“These lands were supposed to be protected by treaties,” Myron Dewey, who runs the Digital Smoke Signals website that followed events at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, told The Register last night. “They weren’t, that’s why we call the US government forked tongues.”

The Standing Rock protests took place in a remote section of North Dakota, where an oil pipeline was being laid through tribal lands. It was feared the line would contaminate the area's drinking water.

Those who showed up to oppose the construction quickly found that electronic countermeasures were being used both overtly and covertly.

For example, a yellow helicopter spent hours flying over the protesters’ encampments, along with numerous small aircraft that the demo organizers believe were being used in a similar way to airborne cellphone tracking systems already in use by the Feds over the US.


Fake cellphone towers were also set up to monitor transmissions, the protesters claim. These only connected to a limited number of phones, Dewey said, and imitated the signals sent out by legitimate telcos. Unbelievably, the spy masts were able to take over and control handsets automatically over the air, it is alleged. This suggests software or firmware on the devices were compromised wirelessly – not impossible given the exploitable bugs in today's handsets.

“I had my iPhone turn on remotely and start transcribing my conversations and texting them out,” Dewey said. “This was quite obvious, and didn’t require any interaction on my part.”

Lisha Sterling, executive director of Geeks Without Bounds, shed some more light on this. When arriving at the camp she set her phone into airplane mode to preserve battery life, but found her phone was discharged within hours. She also claimed four smartphones had been pwned remotely during her time at the protests.

Protesters saw equipment from three national security agencies on site, it is claimed, as well as from private security company TigerSwan, which was also involved and is facing lawsuits for its use of physical and electronic security in the area.

Eight hundred fourteen people were arrested at the site, Dewey said, however none have since been charged. He opined that the protests were a training ground for future electronic surveillance techniques that could be used if protests break out again. ®

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