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The Government Spies on Your Cell Phone When You're On a Plane

Published On 12/07/2016 Published On 12/07/2016

You might feel that using an airline’s in-flight wifi network is a comfortable luxury, but government agencies can use it to surveil your whereabouts, effectively rendering you a sitting-duck for spies as you travel the airways.

According to a new report from French newspaper Le Monde, American and British intelligence agencies have been tracking phone-use on different airlines since 2005, in an alarming trend that’s only set to increase as in-flight wifi becomes an even more common amenity. The revelations, supplied by National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden, point to a program called “Thieving Magpie,” orchestrated by Great Britain’s GCHQ, which enables government sleepers to pinpoint your location anytime your phone is turned on above 10,000 feet.

The extent of which the NSA pilfers data is laid bare in an article taken from the NSA’s Signals Intelligence Direct newsletter. As Quartz reports, the agency targets Skype identifying data, email addresses, Facebook identifying data, and BlackBerry pins and email addresses, among other data points. A report from GCHQ identifies which airlines use in-flight internet, and even makes note of what people look at on their mobile devices, including Twitter, Facebook, Email, different media outlets and Bitorrent in its findings.  

Even though it’s a security measure meant to track suspected terrorists after they land, the implications are alarming. How often do you log into in-flight wifi to pass the time and stave off boredom? And how often is there a government spy homing in on that activity?

With those answers unclear, it’s plainly obvious that the days of gripping over an airline’s stingy baggage policies are fading fast.

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Sam Blum is a News Staff Writer for Thrillist. He's also a martial arts and music nerd who appreciates a fine sandwich and cute dogs. Find his clips in The Guardian, Rolling Stone, The A.V. Club and Vice. He's on Twitter @Blumnessmonster. 

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