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I recently was in a third world country which is know as a police state with heavy cyber surveillance. I noticed that brand new smartphones came in a box that had a nice holographic seal showing the map of that country. (To be specific, it was a Samsung A8, a legitimate one---not counterfeit.)

Is there a chance that certain smartphones sold in that country could have some built-in hard/soft/firmware to facilitate state surveillance? Is that seal just used for benign branding purposes (akin to the Maple leaf on McDonald's logos in Canada), or does it betray a more sinister arrangement between the manufacturer and the regime?

EDIT:

Let me further qualify the question. I realize that a police state will have no problem accessing any kind of telecommunication, but my question is more specific to the actual physical phone facilitating the identification of private individuals. For example, if I were to use a foreign SIM card in that phone, either in that country or abroad, would the surveillance still be possible precisely because it is tied to a "rigged" device. Or to rephrase it differently, would you buy that phone or would the country-specific branding of a major smartphone manufacturer be cause for concern?

  • You mean apart from that which comes as standard with iOS and android? – symcbean Jan 7 at 15:47
  • This question won't age well. The safe answer to the question in the title is yes. There are a lot of countries. Plus even if it's currently not the case that any given country does this that doesn't mean it wasn't / won't be practiced in the past / future. Whether such malware exists somewhere may or may not be public knowledge. – Future Security Jan 7 at 17:22
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There usually is no need for a state to install phone-call-intercepting malware when all they have to do is demand access to calls from the phone carriers. And some countries prohibit encryption on mobile phone calls.

But you asked if they can. Russia allegedly did this during the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, as part of their “Ring of Steel” security strategy. It was claimed that they installed malware on mobile phones in addition to monitoring all network traffic. Such efforts are difficult to prove, of course, but are certainly not unthinkable.

  • No need in general for things not end to end encrypted with verified public keys. But smart phones also have additional private data about you if they're not used just for calls. (Like web browser history, passwords.) Location tracking would be on my list except for it also being possible without malware installed. – Future Security Jan 7 at 17:17

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