Joon Ian Wong | Quartz | December 7, 2016 | 0 Comments

The NSA Can See Everything You’re Doing With Your Phone on a Plane

Pixza Studio/

If you like your privacy, don’t fly the friendly skies with your phone connected to in-flight networks. American and British intelligence have been surveilling phone use aboard civil aircraft since at least 2005, according to a new investigation by Le Monde based on secret documents from former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.

Simply turning on your phone when the plane is flying above 10,000 feet will reveal your location to the NSA, according to an article from a classified internal newsletter.

The spy agencies were able to extract a range of information in near real-time under a program aptly named “Thieving Magpie.” They include:

The agencies then correlate this data with other facts, like the plane’s passenger list, the flight number, and other details in order to pinpoint a particular user.

The spies can also see what you’re doing on your phone. For instance, the British intelligence agency GCHQ said it found users were using their phones to check email, use Facebook and Twitter, fire up travel apps like Google Maps and currency convertors, make calls, and weirdly, download stuff on BitTorrent. “Data usage is largely as expected, with a couple of exceptions,” the agency noted in a presentation.

Spying on people on planes is handy if you want to arrest them or further surveil them when they land. The GCHQ presentation says the program can confirm that subjects are aboard particular flights in “near real-time,” allowing surveillance or arrest teams to be prepared when the plane lands.

Air France appeared to be of particular interest to the spooks. Named as a possible terrorist target, the airline was the subject of a 2005 NSA memo that detailed how its flights could be tracked. The airline told Le Monde that it “knew absolutely nothing” about the surveillance.

Dozens of airlines allow passengers to use their phones in the cabin. Here’s a list from The Telegraph that also shows when airlines launched their in-flight programs. In the wake of these revelations, flight mode doesn’t seem like such a bad idea after all.


Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Forecasting Cloud's Future

    Conversations with Federal, State, and Local Technology Leaders on Cloud-Driven Digital Transformation

  • The Big Data Campaign Trail

    With everyone so focused on security following recent breaches at federal, state and local government and education institutions, there has been little emphasis on the need for better operations. This report breaks down some of the biggest operational challenges in IT management and provides insight into how agencies and leaders can successfully solve some of the biggest lingering government IT issues.

  • Communicating Innovation in Federal Government

    Federal Government spending on ‘obsolete technology’ continues to increase. Supporting the twin pillars of improved digital service delivery for citizens on the one hand, and the increasingly optimized and flexible working practices for federal employees on the other, are neither easy nor inexpensive tasks. This whitepaper explores how federal agencies can leverage the value of existing agency technology assets while offering IT leaders the ability to implement the kind of employee productivity, citizen service improvements and security demanded by federal oversight.

  • IT Transformation Trends: Flash Storage as a Strategic IT Asset

    MIT Technology Review: Flash Storage As a Strategic IT Asset For the first time in decades, IT leaders now consider all-flash storage as a strategic IT asset. IT has become a new operating model that enables self-service with high performance, density and resiliency. It also offers the self-service agility of the public cloud combined with the security, performance, and cost-effectiveness of a private cloud. Download this MIT Technology Review paper to learn more about how all-flash storage is transforming the data center.

  • Ongoing Efforts in Veterans Health Care Modernization

    This report discusses the current state of veterans health care


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.