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Are you being watched ... by your phone?

The TV show Person of Interest says everyone with a mobile phone is a target for snoops. Is that true?

September 22, 2012 06:37 AM ET

Computerworld - "You are being watched."

Those are the first words uttered in the opening monologue of a really cool TV show called Person of Interest on CBS. The show's Season 2 premier airs this week on Thursday, Sept. 27, at 9 p.m. or 8 p.m., depending on where you live.

"Person of Interest," developed by J. J. Abrams and Jonathan Nolan, is about a mysterious billionaire software genius who built an anti-terrorism surveillance supercomputer for the government but left himself a back door for the system to feed him the Social Security numbers of people in New York City who will be involved in a murder, which the supercomputer can predict.

He doesn't know whether those people will be the victims or the murderers, but he uses the information to try to stop the crimes before they happen. To do this, he hires a former special forces soldier-turned-CIA super-ninja to go out and beat up the bad guys and save the innocent.

The show is about a lot of things. It's a detective thriller, a bromance, a shoot-em-up action show. It's about espionage, government snooping and machine consciousness. But mostly, it's a show about cellphones.

Specifically, Person of Interest highlights the many ways to hack, track, listen in on and use smartphones to monitor people.

Characters in the movie routinely "clone" cellphones, listen in remotely via the microphones in phones, track people in real time via the GPS technology in their handsets, "Bluejack" phones, and download contacts and other information wirelessly.

One character has a supercomputer; the other has super-ninja fighting skills. But their most effective superpowers are their mobile phone skills.

How realistic is all this? Let's have a look.

Mobile phone cloning

Cloning enables a phone to make and receive calls that appear to be coming from another phone.

Cloning used to be a lot easier. And in some countries, such as India, it's still a widespread problem.

In the old days, you needed only to get a couple of unique identifying numbers from the target phone and then enter them on a secret menu on the clone phone.

These days, it's very difficult. If you want to get the requisite secret identifying numbers, your best bet is to hack a cellular carrier's database or use expensive, specialized equipment to snatch the numbers from the airwaves (a technique that also requires physical access to the SIM card).

For the petty crooks who used to clone phones in order to sell phones that could make free calls (billed to the victim), cloning is an industry in decline.

Besides, the "benefits" of cloning are largely available through other means, such as free VoIP calls, and some of the techniques I detail below.



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