​Government spies surveil phones in flight, report says

Documents leaked by Edward Snowden are the root of a report showing how US and British spy agencies can watch what you're doing with your phone on a plane.

Michelle Meyers
Michelle Meyers wrote and edited CNET News stories from 2005 to 2020 and is now a contributor to CNET.
Michelle Meyers
2 min read

Hey team Hillary, the NSA could be watching you.


Turns out the skies are not so friendly after all, at least as far as privacy is concerned.

American and British intelligence agencies have been surveilling cell phone use on commercial flights since 2005, according to a new investigation by Le Monde based on documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

As journalist and digital media teacher Dan Gillmor tweeted, it's "another good reason to use airplane mode when you're on the plane."

But just turning on your phone when the plane is above 10,000 feet reveals your location to the NSA, according to 2010 internal NSA newsletter posted by Le Monde. The newsletter starts off with the following riddle: "What do the President of Pakistan, a cigar smuggler, an arms dealer, a counterterrorism target, and a combatting proliferation target have in common? They all used their everyday GSM phone during a flight."

Le Monde goes on to explain how the spy agencies can extract information like email addresses and Skype and Facebook ID data and then correlate it with flight and passenger data to pinpoint a particular user. They can also reportedly see what you're doing on your phone, be it looking through email or using a travel app.

The NSA and did not immediately respond to a request for confirmation or comment on the Le Monde report. Its British equivalent, Government Communications Headquarters, declined to comment.

Snowden has been living in exile in Russia since 2013 after releasing a trove of documents detailing widespread government surveillance, including the bulk collection of internet user information and phone records.