Who’s listening? This week we take a fictional look at a very non-fictional issue surrounding our personal privacy.
I first saw it resting in a planter next to our table at Café Cucina. A black rectangle was camouflaged against the dark soil amid the thick stalks of a corn plant. I bent down to take a closer look. Somebody dropped their phone, I think. I pick it up and tap the power button.
The screen lights up – CALL IN PROGRESS. Huh? I didn’t make a call, and this is not my phone.
Renata pushes her long auburn hair from her face and stares at me, “What’s going on?” She says.
“What do you make of this?” I say, handing her the phone.
The waiter arrives and hands us menus. “Today’s specials are___.”
I cut him off, “Give us a few minutes.” The waiter snorts, pivots, and leaves.
The faint scent of garlic and onions lingers in the air. The late summer sun is streaming through the large plate-glass window beside our table. She angles the phone away from the window to avoid the glare. Renata works for Homeland Security. Both a bomb specialist and an M.D. she’s one of the smartest people I know. That she would give me a second look, much less a second date astounds me. I work at NIH here in DC, fiddling with the genes of deadly viruses all day, a boring and very geeky job compared to hers.
Renata’s expression changes. Her lips tighten and her eyes widen. She puts her index finger up to her lips to quiet me and then draws a finger across her throat. I get the message, Shut up. Her persona changes again. She straightens up in her chair and forces a smile. “I think I’m going to have the tilapia florentine. You?”
Figure it best to play along, “Call me boring, but spaghetti and meatballs are the true test of a great Italian restaurant. Do that right and all the other fancy, dancy Florentine stuff will be good too.”
Renata fakes a laugh, “OK, now that that’s settled. Listen, can you meet me tomorrow at 2:00 in West Potomac Park by the railing along the river, across from the Jefferson Memorial, and bring along that sample we discussed?” She nods her head emphatically up and down, my cue.
“Sure. I’ll bring you the latest strain, but you know what we’re doing could get me a lot of trouble.”
She doesn’t miss a beat, “I know. Just make sure you’re not followed the way I showed you. Hey, listen. It’s Sunday. We don’t have to rush back to work or anywhere else for that matter. I’m not hungry. Let’s skip lunch and go back to my place and have some dessert. I’ll give you a taste of something you’ll never forget.” She winks at me.
I feel my face redden. This is moving much faster than I expected. I mean it’s only the second date. We just had a warm, sweet kiss goodbye after the first date. Thoughts are swirling in my head. The phone? Meeting in the park? Sex? What’s going on here? I silently raise my hands palms-up, miming my question.
Renata taps the red button on the mysterious phone, disconnecting the call. She removes the phone’s battery and SIM card. Then she takes a silver Faraday Bag from her purse, puts the phone and battery inside, and seals it. “We’ll have a look at this back at the office. Maybe we can figure out who it belongs to.” She studies the worried look on my face. “It’s a ZombiePhone,“ she says.
“What? What’s a ZombiePhone?”
“Somebody wanted to listen to our conversation. So, they hid this phone in the planter. He or she set the ringer to silent and the phone to auto-answer. We sat down and our intruder called this phone, it answered silently, and he or she was listening. It’s high-tech and low-tech at the same time. Pretty clever, eh?”
“That’s some scary shit. What do you think they want?”
“Not sure. That’s why I made up that stuff about meeting in the park tomorrow.”
“I got that part. That’s why I played along. Obviously, I can’t share my work with anybody. So, we’re not meeting in the park tomorrow?”
“Oh, but we are meeting in the park. I’ll have the place totally surveilled and surrounded. If that’s what this phone is about, we’ll find out and nail the bastard,” she says.
“I never suspected our second date would turn into a spy novel, but I did like that part about going back to your place.”
“Oh, that was an act too. The other possibility is that my ex-husband put the phone there to spy on me. I’ll nail him too.” She pauses, noticing my face fall. “Oh, don’t look so disappointed. Once we get to know each other a little better, I might invite you over for a little dessert,” she smiles and tears apart one of the dinner rolls sitting in the basket at the edge of the table. Chewing, she says, “Now, let’s order lunch.”
I’m not sure how I feel about all this. I’ve definitely lost my appetite. But looking into Renata’s beautiful brown eyes and taking in her self-confidence, my nerves start to settle. The waiter returns and takes our order.
She pats her lips with her cloth napkin and reaches out, taking my hand in hers. “You know there’s one other possibility.” She pauses and tilts her head, “Your boss might want to have a serious conversation with you tomorrow morning, and you might need a very good lawyer.”
- – END –
To find out more about ZombiePhones and other vulnerabilities that inspired this story, check out Is My Cell Phone Bugged? by Kevin Murray.