Stalker Terrorizes Family Via Cell Phone?

The Kuykendall family in Fircrest, Wash., claims that a hacker has been stalking them for four months through their camera phones, using the microphones in the phones to listen to them and the cameras to watch. They say that even when they turn off the phones, the hacker can turn them back on.

The family has shared with police and the news media recorded messages left on the voice mail of both family cell phones and the home landline phone. They say these messages demonstrate that the caller knows what the family is doing and even wearing, and that the stalker is threatening school shootings and killing family members and pets. The Kuykendalls say they get such calls almost every day, and they appear to come from the cell phone of the Kuykendall's 16-year-old daughter, Courtney.

In addition to the voice mails, someone has banged on the side of their house at night then run away.

Two other nearby families, the Prices and the McKays, have also received threatening messages by the same caller.

Sounds like an amazing story, and it certainly makes great alarmist television and shocking headlines. At least one news channel has called the events an example of "the worst form of terrorism."

But how real is it? And how worried should you be that some creepy stalker is using your own cell phone to monitor your every move?

The answer to both questions: Not very.

Reality check

Let's take a look at each of the claims or beliefs reported by the Kuykendalls.

1. Unauthorized listening through the phone's microphone. As the security experts are eager to tell the media during publicity-enhancing interviews, it's possible to eavesdrop on conversations through a cell phone microphone, even when the phone appears to be "off."

In law enforcement circles, it's called a "roving bug."

Though possible, even through the downloading of a Java-based program, it's not likely. Such downloadable script-kiddie hacks are very rare, and would need to be reinstalled with new accounts or new phones, as the Kuykendalls claim they have gotten.

Courtney is reportedly a MySpace user. If she visits a MySpace page with a phone-snooping Trojan of some kind with each new phone, then she could keep reinfecting her new phones. But it's very unlikely that a stranger with no physical access to the phone could repeatedly and quickly pull this off.

2. Unauthorized watching through the phone's camera. This one is clearly bogus. Although technically possible, the problem is that cameras are almost never pointed directly at people accidentally. Take out your camera right now. If it was on, and a hacker was in control of it, would it be videotaping you?

One of the alleged victims, Andrea McKay, says that while cutting limes, the caller phoned her and told her he preferred lemons. Was the camera phone pointed directly at her in the kitchen? It's much more likely that someone looked in the window.

3. Remote turning on of phone when off. Some phones, including BlackBerries, Nokias and others, will be turned on by a set alarm. Many phones are never really "off," unless the battery is removed.

There are no known Trojans or applications that enable a remote hacker to turn on at will a cell phone currently off.

4. Ring tones are changed. This can be theoretically done with a downloadable Java hack, but, again, it's unlikely without physical access to the phone.

5. Problem continues with new phones, new account. Control over a cell phone can come about only in one of three ways: Installing software with physical access to the phone, using a downloadable Trojan or hacking the carrier's Web site for phones that rely on the Internet to store account settings.

If some hacker were able to do this, it might explain some of the events, such as changing ring tones and spoofed calls, but not others.

6. Most of the calls and text messages traced back to Courtney's phone. There are four possibilities here. The first is that Courtney Kuykendall is in on the hoax. The second is that someone is stealing and using her phone. The third is that her phone has been cloned. And the fourth is that her number is being "spoofed" -- someone is calling from another phone, but making it appear as if the calls are coming from Courtney's phone.

Spoofing is the easiest to do, although it doesn't explain some of the other attacks, such as gaining access to the cell phone's microphone.

Why this whole thing is bogus

It's theoretically possible that some hacker with the voice of a 9-year-old is simultaneously applying several rare, difficult-to-apply hacks that explain most of the claims made by the Kuykendalls. It's also theoretically possible to win three lotteries in one day. It's just not very likely.

I think the family is being socially engineered more than hacked. Though presented as an unprecedented and new kind of cybercrime, I think this is just cyberbullying. A new report says that nearly one third of U.S. teenagers have been exposed to cyberbullying. One of the most common "themes" of cyberbullying is threats of violence against female teens or the female relatives of teens.

The Kuykendalls fear their cell phones are watching them. But it's much more likely that some neighborhood kid is just looking in the window.

But the main reason this story doesn't hold water is that solving the "mystery" is so simple.

First of all, the Kuykendalls should simply remove the batteries from their cell phones until they catch the kid doing all this. Does the "stalker" still call the house's landline phone with intelligence about what's happening at the house? If so, he's watching by some other means besides the phones.

The Kuykendalls claim they have removed the batteries, but simultaneously claim that the cell phone hacking hasn't stopped. It can't be both.

The Kuykendalls have told millions of Americans through the media that they're terrified to the point of paralysis, but apparently not terrified enough to stop using their phones for awhile. Nor have they switched to phones that don't support Internet access or Java, or switched carriers.

Secondly, the perpetrators are occasionally banging on the sides of their house. Why not simply install a motion-detected camera system? Either the banging will stop, or they'll get a photo of the stalker.

Who's spreading 'terror'?

Prime time news is well known for spreading needless fear, especially when evil new technology is to blame. And this story is especially problematic fearmongering.

One newscaster on FOX News said: "This is beyond stalking ... this is terrorism in the worst form ... we call it 'bullying,' we call it 'little kids acting out' -- it's not. It's terrorism. ... it also proves no technology or law can guard you against bad behavior."

Most reasonable people think suicide bombs against busloads of children or Sept. 11 might be examples of "terrorism in the worst form." Some kid leaving hateful prank messages isn't terrorism.

The story also doesn't "prove" that "no technology or law can guard you against bad behavior."

Remove the battery from the cell phones and install a camera. There. Technology is now guarding you against bad behavior. How do they pick people for these newscaster jobs?

Teenagers have been leaving messages like these trying to scare girls or impress their friends since the telephone was invented. Some kid leaves creepy phone messages, and now millions of TV viewers are left with the impression that demonic hackers might be stalking us all through our cell phones.

The reality is that the cell phone is the worst thing that ever happened to real stalkers. Would-be victims are able to snap and send camera phone pictures, call for help and videotape stalker-related crimes.

People concerned about stalkers should love their cell phones, not fear them.

This whole thing is like the perfect bad story. Nobody is doing their job. Some kid is being a jerk. The family is being irrational and uncreative. The police aren't offering obvious solutions. And the news media is failing to do its homework, speculating irresponsibly and outright scaremongering.

Stalking via cell phone? Gimme a break.

You know what would be a great story? Stalking via iPho...er, never mind.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and global tech culture. Contact Mike at mike.elgan@elgan.com or his blog, The Raw Feed.

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