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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.

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