Why I am against owning Cell Phones (or: Why Replicant and other ROMS aren't enough)

29 January 2016

Last update: Thu 16 Jul 2020 05:46:42 AM UTC


The Cell Phone (and Smart Phone), in my view, are nothing more than over-simplified and weaker portable computers. These systems are very under-powered. As a communication device, they are also heavily wanting. The Smart Phone is actually more archaic than its predecessor, the simple Cell Phone. These devices have wiggled their way not only into everyday modern life, but contemporary Americana. It has been suggested by Free Software advocates that the popularity of the cell phone is not only unavoidable, but claims that the full solution to its privacy issues is to either use a more out-moded flip-phone or replace the Smart Phone's ROM with a security-centric one. In this article I hope to prove why these two issues are not only missing the point but are utilizing (perhaps by accident) red herring arguments.

In this article, I will be primarily discussing the 3G (known as GMS) and 4G (known as LTE) networks, as these are the most contemporary. While there are privacy concerns surrounding the previously-standard forms of cellular networks such as 0-Generation (Radio Telephone) though 2-Generation (Digital AMPS), it is not necessary to discuss them as outside of rural areas in flyover country, these network methods are no longer in existence in North America.

The Problems

Problem 1: E-911 (Enhanced 911) Services

Enhanced 911 is a service legally required by the FCC to be implemented by every Cellular Network in North America, including Canada and Mexico through treaty.

The method of Enhanced 911 is a very simple system. All cell phones connect to the Cellular Tower. The Cellular Tower is required to ping the telephone every 30 seconds. Using the time it takes to ping the telephone, the geographical location of the specific tower, and the rate of change within the ping, software triangulates the location of the cell phone in a near-constant state. Therefore, the Cellular Network knows the approximate location of its users without the need for location services such as GPS.

This is for the public interest. The idea behind it is that if you were to call Emergency Services (which is 911 in America), and your call is disconnected, your operator can find the location of the emergency call regardless of being mobile. In the older days of Emergency Responder's digital location services, the Telephone Company's records (e.g. address of the caller) would appear on their computer screens. On a mobile phone, this information is useless.

A smarter method would be to start this triangulation at the moment of dial. However, the ability to triangulate all together shows a risk.

Problem 2: Cell Phones can't tell Real Towers from Fake Towers

You all know what a Cell Phone Tower looks like, right? It's the big thing with microwave antennas that look like drums all over it? Well, to your cell phone it looks like a Microwave signal transmitting I/O. Technological breakthroughs within the past decade have led to the creation of a device known as a Stingray. Reported in 2016 by The Wallstreet Journal (back-up link) these devices can be as easily made as a ham-radio, and need no direct-interaction with target cell phones. There is no verification secure method to show that a Cell Tower belongs to the Cell Network. I take this as to conclude that a modern phreaker can not only eavesdrop on your calls and invade your privacy, but it can also be used to make phone calls using your own number. The previous generations of mobile telephony could more easily do this, and for a brief time you could even hear AMPS-era calls on the upper-band of an old UHF-compatible television set. This latter-day service is digital, but not in any form encrypted.

This stingray device was proven to be used by the NSA in 2011. The NSA had a large number of these fake towers that the Cell Phones would switch over to, thinking it is a normal network tower. Through this, the NSA logged all communications from the user.

A more contemporary example was discovered early in 2018. An analysis conducted by the Pentagon of the Washington DC area discovered that almost all embassies in the area have adopted Stingray technology to eavesdrop on US Government Employee's telephone conversations.

Not only does the federal government (and it's allies) use these devices (apparently on each other too), but local police precincts have begun to use them in illegal method that many precincts have agreed to have been a violation of the 4th and 5th Amendment. In mid-2015, USA Today (back-up link) reported its use in a simple theft case within the city of Baltimore. The article also says similar devices are being used in the cities of Los Angles and Miami. The article says that local police districts hide these devices and often times do not disclose information related to the devices, causing many judges —and even lawyers from both prosecution and defense— to not know how this evidence against the defense is obtained. It does not take a lawyer to realize this is wrong and illegal.

The technology has other purposes outside of law enforcement that are equally abysmal. Advertising companies can and do use it to track users in a supposedly legal method, as The New York Times (back-up link) reported in 2016. This method also uses surveillance cameras. Ironically, this report did not make front-page news as it should have (I personally believe the story to be as major as The Pentagon Papers), but is pushed to the Business section, as if The Times is promoting it as a contemporary idea for the Businessman.

Problem 3: Using both technologies together can (and has proven to) strengthen spying

Using both the E-911 system, as well as the stingray faux-tower method, the US Government used small aircraft to spy on the cell phone devices of the domestic terrorist group Black Lives Matter in late 2015, as reported byThe Washington Post (Back-up link). The Post reports that the aircraft was not only equipped with the stingray device, but also used the method of E-911 Triangulation to track the locations of the owners without GPS ever playing a factor. An artistic visualization of the technology is available here (jpeg, 60Kib).

Problem 4: Even with a new ROM, virus attacks are possible (and more dangerous)

Up until this point, I have shown the problems with the basic Cellular Phone network. For the remainder of this article, I will discuss the other problems with the Cell Phone besides this major problem.

Simply flashing a new ROM to your Android phone does not mean you are not vulnerable to exploits in the system, including viruses, malware, bugs, and what have you. Using a custom ROM can be very beneficial to the experience of your cell phone, as well as the security of, but nothing is 100% fool-proof. For example, all cell phones, even those running Replicant, can be turned into listening devices. Even if there was a way to disable the internal microphone, this would be handled at the software level. This therefore can easily be bypassed. The only solution would be an analog switch that physically removes the connection. However, this again is not enough as the speaker can be used to pick up sound as well. I am somewhat surprised how many people do not know that a speaker can easily be converted to a low-quality microphone.

Should a virus enter the system, it easily can take control of these software switches. If you could disable the microphone through analog switch, then what about the speaker? And again, how would one bypass the triangulation system of E-911 and a random Dozer playing Johnny Mnemonic with a stingray?

A virus does not necessarily need to transmit recorded sound at all to eavesdrop on you. Lets say the intruder would be able to record audio from the cell phone speaker. Say you have been able to put your phone into airplane mode. The virus is designed to record your communications and send it to some random IP address in Korea. It can't connect. Congrats! But what happens when you connect to Wifi? The recording is not instantaneously transmitted. It saved itself as a .opus file. As soon as you connect to VoIP, it uploads itself. Congrats, spyware independent of the cell tower.

The viruses you can receive on a Smart Phone can lead to everything a virus or malicious program you can do on an actual computer. There is no difference simply due to changes in hardware. Further, because Android uses the Linux Kernel this means that it can get viruses centric to the GNU/Linux system. There are malicious apps targeting Android alone. By changing the ROM, you only change the OS, not the target vector.

Problem 5: Smart Phone are contradictory to the progress of Computing

This problem is purely a philosophical point of personal preference. I hope you take it to heart, but you may choose to ignore this one.

The progress of the computer led to the Personal Desktop, followed by the Laptop for portability. The IBM-Compatible (now for some reason refered to as "wintel") system became the dominate on the market. This is a good thing. With IBM-Compatible systems becoming a computer standard rather than a monopoly, people choosing to conform to the standard have boarder acceptance. Technically, every modern Personal Computer (except Apple) is a clone of the original IBM circuit design, thus IBM-Compatible. IBM receives no royalties on design as well. Atari and Commodore could not compete with this rapid-adoption.

However, the modern tablet and the SmartPhone (both designed for a convince) are contradictory to this standard. Without using the IBM-Standard they are therefore computers that run contrary to the pursuit of progress. They not only contradict the IBM-Compatible standard but wholly lack any standard whatsoever. Rather, the manufactures of these devices have chosen to adopt a monopolistic design in each system. Despite being a rectangle and similarly designed on the exterior, the interior is a smorgasbord of different circuit design. You can not use parts from a Nokia in a Motorola, nor can you run Android on a phone made for Windows Phone OS.

Something truly saddening and downright appalling is that the Cell Phone and the Tablet is expected to replace the Desktop and Laptop computer. This is very confusing considering that all Smart Phones are is essentially a PDA bundled with a Cell Phone.

You can read more about the development of the contemporary P.C. in three places: Where did the Computer Go? by Dragan Espehchied, Turing Complete User by Olia Lialina, and What Made the PC, Mac, and Linux so Great (or not) by Nathan "Toasty Tech" Lineback. An article worth reading that is not quite on this topic but touches similar philosophical areas is Rich User Experience, UX and Desktopization of War by Olia Lialina.

What do I do?

When I am financially stable, I carry 50 cents when I go outside, in case I find the need to make a phone call. Pay Phones still exist despite what the general population and media might lead you to believe. Furthermore, simply asking the local business to make a quick phone call usually works. I rarely have need to make a phone call when outside, except maybe when I travel. That is somewhat of a rarity for me. Still, it is always good to prepare.

If I have an urgent call I am expecting, I stay at home and wait for my POTS (Land-Line) connection to ring. If it is only somewhat urgent, I check my answering machine when I return from errands. If you consider this fuddy-duddy I am confused at your aversion to this, and am sorry.


Think of this: Do you really have someone that you need to call so urgently that you need to carry a communications device on you at all times? As I said before, I just use my answering machine.

If you use your Smart Phone for listening to music in your car, just switch to the radio or play a CD. Its not too bad, and sometimes the audio quality is even better.

If you use your Smart Phone to mindlessly search for funny photos of things, then you are dumb. That in and of itself is a very normie thing to do, and you should stop doing it as soon as possible. If you must laugh at this nonsense, then you can simply wait to use your computer at home if you must.

Texting is obsolete in and of itself. Of Cell Phone users I have seen, most don't use SMS but instead use other methods such as the Kik app, Snapchat, and Facebook Messanger. If you an use an App, you can use IM software on your computer.

Using a cellphone in a home-enviornment (and not out-and-about) is a stupid thing to do. Having the phone company give you a land-line is superior to a small devices that goes out when there is interference outside such as a simple lightning storm. Also, a home phone usually goes for $20/m (sometimes cheaper). The actual telephone can be bought for between $5 and $20. A contemporary Smart Phone seems to usually be between $50 to $800, and has a bill of $80 to $200/m. This is asinine to think you're getting a good deal.

In conclusion, changing the ROM to a Freedom-Friendly ROM on a Smart Phone is not enough. Also, if you are a Doctor, a Taxi-Driver, or a Contractor you might need a cell phone. Otherwise, stop it. You really aren't that important. I think a pager would be a better choice all together though, as it has less chance of monitoring due to simply using the SMS system to receive text that you respond to later from another device.

Update 2019:

I have found a video with Richard Stallman touching on many of the subjects I speak of in this article. You may see his speech below.