Say a smartphone does not have any (internet) data plans activated (no gprs, 3g data etc.). It just connects to the tower for calls. So is it technically possible for the carrier or law enforcement agencies to get into a phones' file system through the cell network alone?
For sake of argument let's say the phone is an unlocked one with full access to OS. Eg: Firefox OS, Maemo (Nokia N900), Meego (N950), BB etc.


Just because you do not have a data plan does not mean that the phone company can not issue a reprogram to the phone and activate the data functionality regardless of if you are paying them for a subscription to data. That said, what level of access they have to the phone's OS, even with a data connection, depends on the way the device is configured.

If the device has been installed with a clean copy of the OS that doesn't trust any software from the carrier, then accessing data on the phone likely won't be possible even with an open data connection. If the phone is unaltered out of the box, it may be possible that the carrier has software in place to allow remote access and management of the device's OS installed though.

Their capability would then be anything they could program in and decided to do. In theory, it would even be possible to tell a pre-installed application to turn on the data radio when receiving a particular call or SMS message, so turning off the data connection on the phone might not be sufficient to prevent remote activation.

It might not be known if such software is placed on the particular phone by carriers, but there also isn't really anything to stop them and is even a reasonable use case for it (in recovering stolen phones).

  • What if the phone is unlocked one's that carrier does not have any control other than the SIM card?
    – user632
    Jun 16 '14 at 16:52
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    They may still be able to turn on data service remotely, but unless someone put a back door in to the phone's OS, then there wouldn't be a way to access it. It depends how much you trust the OS/Phone manufacturer. I'm aware of carriers installing tools on phones, not so aware of phone makers doing it on unlocked devices though. Jun 16 '14 at 16:58
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    Well, GSM does have a requirement that you can turn on a phone remotely (for tsunami warnings and such), so that particular tool should be available on unlocked GSM phones (if not the CDMA phones). Jun 17 '14 at 1:52

If you believe Edward Snowden, yes they can.

In last week’s interview with NBC, the former CIA employee yet again added to the spreading privacy panic when he said the NSA can actually eavesdrop on cellphones even when they are turned off.

“Can anyone turn it on remotely if it's off?” Williams asked Snowden referring to the smartphone he used for travel to Russia for the interview. “Can they turn on apps? Did anyone know or care that I Googled the final score of the Rangers-Canadiens game last night because I was traveling here?”

“I would say yes to all of those,” Snowden replied. “They can absolutely turn them on with the power turned off to the device,” he added.

If they can really turn on phones remotely and turn on apps as he claims, I think it would be trivial for them to turn on data (even on a non-data plan) and retrieve files from the file system.


This is done through an RFID chip in ur phone. You could try downloading terminal on ur phone to disable certain things, sometimes its not law enforcement that uses this sometimes its regular people with the right software. Any criminal can learn how to hack an RFID chip and gain access to ur device, credit card and hi-jack it

  • This is incorrect - RFID is very short range and has nothing to do with the mobile network.
    – Rory Alsop
    Jun 18 '14 at 8:26

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