Photo: Brooks Kraft LLC/Corbis via Getty Images

The NSA on Tuesday released a detailed guide on the dangers that cellphones, Internet of Things devices, social media accounts, and vehicle communications may pose to military and intelligence personnel.

The big picture: There are a whole host of ways devices like smartphones can be used to track individuals’ every move, and the NSA concludes that ditching them may be the only surefire way to avoid tracking by a determined adversary.

Details: Bluetooth, WiFi, GPS and apps that track a user’s location can all reveal granular information about someone’s locations, movements and larger patterns of life, says the NSA.

  • But people can only mitigate data leakage from their devices, not stanch it entirely, the agency finds. So intelligence personnel performing operational acts who simply cannot afford to be tracked at all may have to take more severe steps.
  • Concerned individuals may want to “determine a non-sensitive location where devices with wireless capabilities can be secured prior to the start of any activities. Ensure that the mission site cannot be predicted from this location,” says the NSA.
  • Then, according to the NSA, these individuals should “Leave all devices with any wireless capabilities (including personal devices) at this non-sensitive location. Turning off the device may not be sufficient if a device has been compromised.”

Yes, but: Here’s a counterintelligence koan of sorts: the absence of a signal can be a signal.

  • What’s one possible way to spot an intelligence officer conducting an operation? Find the person without a smartphone.
  • Close watchers may even be able to deduce specific operational activities. If there’s a crowd of 1,000 people in a public square, and 998 are giving off digital emissions from their cellphones, and two people walking from opposite directions closely cross paths: Voila, you’ve probably observed a brush pass.

The bottom line: For spies, there are no easy solutions to the problems the digital age poses for human-centered tradecraft. If you give off electronic signals, you’re vulnerable and trackable; if you don’t, paradoxically, you may find yourself in the very same situation.

Go deeper

Dan Primack, author of Pro Rata
Aug 15, 2020 - Technology

"Historic" laptop demand leads to shortages ahead of remote school

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

American students are facing a shortage of laptops, particularly low-cost Chromebooks popular in K-8 schools, at the same time that many districts are choosing full-remote or hybrid reopening models.

Why it matters: No device = no education.

Updated 7 mins ago - Politics & Policy

Trump signs bill to prevent government shutdown

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnel and President Trump arrives at the U.S. Capitol in March. Photo: Samuel Corum/Getty Images

President Trump signed a bill to extend current levels of government funding after funding expired briefly, White House spokesperson Judd Deere confirmed early Thursday.

Why it matters: The move averts a government shutdown before the Nov. 3 election. The Senate on Wednesday passed the legislation to fund the federal government through Dec. 11, by a vote of 84-10.

Updated 43 mins ago - Science

In photos: Deadly wildfires devastate California's wine country

The Shady Fire ravages a home as it approaches Santa Rosa in Napa County, California, on Sept. 28. The blaze is part of the massive Glass Fire Complex, which has razed over 51,620 acres at 2% containment. Photo: Samuel Corum/Agence France-Presse/AFP via Getty Images

More than 1700 firefighters are battling 26 major blazes across California, including in the heart of the wine country, where one mega-blaze claimed the lives of three people and forced thousands of others to evacuate this week.

The big picture: More than 8,100 wildfires have burned across a record 39 million-plus acres, killing 29 people and razing almost 7,900 structures in California this year, per Cal Fire. Just like the deadly blazes of 2017, the wine country has become a wildfires epicenter. Gov. Gavin Newsom has declared a state of emergency in Napa, Sonoma, and Shasta counties.