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The NSA Can See Everything You’re Doing With Your Phone on a Plane

Just turning on your phone will tell the NSA where you are.

If you like your privacy, don’t fly the friendly skies with your phone connected to in-flight networks. American and British intelligence have been surveilling phone use aboard civil aircraft since at least 2005, according to a new investigation by Le Monde based on secret documents from former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.

Simply turning on your phone when the plane is flying above 10,000 feet will reveal your location to the NSA, according to an article from a classified internal newsletter.

The spy agencies were able to extract a range of information in near real-time under a program aptly named “Thieving Magpie.” They include:

  • BlackBerry PINs and email addresses
  • Email addresses
  • Skype identifying data
  • Facebook identifying data

The agencies then correlate this data with other facts, like the plane’s passenger list, the flight number, and other details in order to pinpoint a particular user.

The spies can also see what you’re doing on your phone. For instance, the British intelligence agency GCHQ said it found users were using their phones to check email, use Facebook and Twitter, fire up travel apps like Google Maps and currency convertors, make calls, and weirdly, download stuff on BitTorrent. “Data usage is largely as expected, with a couple of exceptions,” the agency noted in a presentation.

Spying on people on planes is handy if you want to arrest them or further surveil them when they land. The GCHQ presentation says the program can confirm that subjects are aboard particular flights in “near real-time,” allowing surveillance or arrest teams to be prepared when the plane lands.

Air France appeared to be of particular interest to the spooks. Named as a possible terrorist target, the airline was the subject of a 2005 NSA memo that detailed how its flights could be tracked. The airline told Le Monde that it “knew absolutely nothing” about the surveillance.

Dozens of airlines allow passengers to use their phones in the cabin. Here’s a list from The Telegraph that also shows when airlines launched their in-flight programs. In the wake of these revelations, flight mode doesn’t seem like such a bad idea after all.