Hacking America

Is Big Brother really watching you?

Is the NSA spying on your cellphone and keystrokes?
Is the NSA spying on your cellphone and keystrokes?

As you type an email or use a cellphone, hackers just might be tracking your every move.

Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who exposed intelligence abusestold NBC News last week that intelligence agencies can gather data from cellphones and monitor emails being typed. "The problem is the capabilities themselves are unregulated, uncontrolled and dangerous," he said.

But experts told CNBC that while intelligence agencies like the NSA may have these capabilities, such sophisticated strategies are used only in rare circumstances. Although the threat of so-called Big Brother watching does exist, consumers' biggest cyberthreat remains cybercriminals, who are after financial data and money.

In a statement, a NSA spokeswoman did not comment on specific foreign intelligence activities, but said, "all of NSA's efforts are strictly conducted under the rule of law and provide appropriate protection for privacy rights. The Agency collects data to meet specific security and intelligence requirements such as counterintelligence, counterterrorism, counterproliferation, cybersecurity, force protection for U.S. troops and allies, and combating transnational crime."

Edward Snowden
Sunshinepress | Getty Images

Snowden told NBC News that surveillance technology can be conducted at rapid speed.

"The NSA, the Russian intelligence service, the Chinese intelligence service, any intelligence service in the world that has significant funding and a real technological research team can own that phone the minute it connects to their network. As soon as you turn it on, it can be theirs," he told NBC News. "They can turn it into a microphone, they can take pictures from it, they can take the data off it."

Can the government control your phone?

Snowden also claimed the NSA could spy on individuals even if phones are turned off, by remotely accessing and powering up the devices.

Robert Graham, chief executive of cybersecurity company Errata Security, told CNBC that the NSA can turn on your phone, but only if it's able to physically touch the phone to install hardware or software.

Cellphones also aren't the most effective tools to access national data, said Dickie George, a former technical director of the NSA's information assurance directorate.

"Just because an agency would have that capability, it still costs to do something like that. … Intelligence agencies are interested in government strategic information, and the cellphone is not really a good way to do that," George said in a phone interview. Hackers are more likely to target cellphones for financial gain, he added.

Read MoreThe anatomy of an Android smartphone cyberattack

Your new Android phone could be hacked
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George, who worked at the NSA for 41 years, also played down the likelihood that the U.S. government is resorting to advanced tactics to monitor personal emails in the name of national security.

George said the bigger problem remains average cyberthieves using commonplace hacking tools. Keylogger, for example, is a computer program used by hackers to capture keystrokes, often without individual knowledge.

Read MoreData breach! U.S. tops list of victims, study shows

"If you have a legitimate intelligence need, then you're going to try and get the information you need in any way you can, and that's [keylogger] one of the tools you might want to use," George said.

An increasingly popular option for criminals after money are remote access tools, or RATs, which allow criminals to watch individuals through webcams and can be purchased for as little as $40.

Read MoreHackers are watching you on infected webcams

By CNBC's Jennifer Schlesinger.

For more CNBC coverage of cybersecurity, visit HackingAmerica.cnbc.com