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Hackers target data-rich smartphones

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Smartphones today are basically miniature computers that carry a goldmine of personal information, and they are easily hacked. Smartphones today are basically miniature computers that carry a goldmine of personal information, and they are easily hacked.
RALEIGH, N.C. -

Who would have imagined that a 2-pound device invented in 1973 would change the world forever?

It's the cellphone, and 41 years later, it connects people all over the world -- from CEO's to teenage girls. While the idea has basically stayed the same, the technology has drastically improved.

So-called "smartphones" today are basically miniature computers that carry a goldmine of personal information. It's an easy way to stay organized and connected, but that convenience can come with a price.

Criminals are always looking for ways to gain access to the information on your phone, and hacking your cellphone is much easier than you may think.

"It's actually quite frightening," said digital forensic expert Lars Daniel with Guardian Digital Forensics.

There is new type of phone hacking software from overseas that's spreading quickly.

"I can think of 10 programs of the top of my head, it's an exploding market," Daniel explained. "One popular program reports having 100,000-plus users," he said.

Those downloads are sold for as cheap as $20, so WNCN Investigates picked one up for about $70 to see if these programs are really what they say they are. What we found was quite shocking.

"It's typically marketed to be able to monitor your children or monitor employees, however the use of these programs can stretch far beyond that," Daniel said.

With her permission, we decided to hack our producer's phone. We installed the software, and in less than a minute we had full access to much more information than anyone would ever want to get out.

"They take control of your phone to be able to do things it was never intended to do," Daniel explained.

From a computer or another cellphone, we could remotely record all of our producer's phone calls, read her text messages and see her pictures. And using the GPS feature on her smartphone, we were able to track her every move.

But the most frightening feature was the microphone control. With her phone just sitting on the table, we could remotely activate the microphone to use the phone as a bug. From miles away we could listen to everything going on around the phone.

According to North Carolina state law, the software is illegal to use if the person whose phone you installed it on doesn't know about it. But here's the catch: with this new software, it's virtually impossible to tell.

"Unfortunately for a user, you can't tell if it's been installed on the phone. The application that installs more or less lives outside of the operating system of the phone," Daniel said. "There are even ways they can remotely wipe your device if they so choose."

Our producer noticed her battery dying faster and her data usage spiked, but other than that there were no other noticeable signs.

So if you think you've been hacked, how do you get rid of it?

"A factory reset that will get rid of that problem," explained Daniel, but he says the best protection is prevention.

He says since most of the software requires the user to have access to your phone, password locking the device is the first line of defense. IPhones also have to be "jailbroken" for the software to work.

So are threats like these just the price we pay for convenience?

"Absolutely," Daniel said. "Whenever you increase the functionality of a device, you're also creating more areas you can exploit it and its security purposes."

It may make you think twice before letting someone borrow your phone if you want to make sure your selfies stay to yourself.

Below are links to help you improve the security of your iPhone. Because of the number of devices from various manufacturers with the Android operating system installed, please consult your user manual for best practices.

RELATED LINKS

Jonathan Rodriguez

Jonathan Rodriguez is an investigative reporter and member of the WNCN Investigates team. His storytelling specialty is connecting the dots to get to the truth, with a goal of delivering results for our community. If you have something you’d like WNCN to investigate, contact Jonathan.

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