Simple $40 wiretap planted in iPhone of Russian activist

An interesting little device was discovered planted in the iPhone of Russian anti-corruption activist Lyubov Sobol's campaign manager over the new year. On December 21, 2020, Sobol's campaign manager Olga Klyuchnikova was taken into custody by the Russian FSB. She spent a week in jail on "administrative charges" and was released – but something was amiss.

In a video released this week, Sobol and colleagues showed the internal components of her smartphone, including what appears to be a clumsily implanted tracking device. She apparently noticed that something was strange when her iPhone was given to her after being taken into custody. Being allowed to use one's own smartphone while in custody was strange enough – but the device began "noticeably malfunctioning' to the point where she became suspicious.

Above you'll see a video posted by the Lyobov Sobol campaign group (for her 2021 State Duma election run). In this video, they show what they'd discovered inside Klyuchnikova's iPhone.

This is very similar to a device by the name of "TOPIN Small ZX620 PCB Wifi LBS GSM Tracker Positioning TF card". You'll find this device available for sale at places like AliExpress for approximately $40 USD.

What's interesting about this little device is the rudimentary nature of its abilities. You'd need to place a SIM card of your own in the device to access internet – but beyond that, all it'd need is power.

Inside a smartphone, a user would need to connect just a few wires from the device's battery to keep the device active, then let it run. Simple as that.

In the case of this iPhone, the likely malicious parties involved needed a bit of space to plant the device, so they did a bit of creative repositioning. They removed the device's original SIM card hardware and soldered the SIM card in directly, giving them a little extra space.

They then took out one of the iPhone's batteries – the larger of the two – and replaced said battery with another one of the smaller batteries. This gave them substantial room inside the phone – more than enough to make way for the tracker.

Once the tracker was planted, they'd have access to GPS tracking information and voice recording abilities via the phone. Or they WOULD have had that data if they'd actually planted the device in correctly... or made the whole process happen with any sort of subtlety.

And of course there are far, far easier ways to do all of this business, if they were more savvy with the software. But that's not the point – the point is, these little devices exist, and they're out there in the wild, for anyone to access with relative ease.