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Phantom Cell Towers Tracking You and Your Calls PDF Print E-mail
Tuesday, 10 April 2018 09:16

The Department of Homeland Security says it has seen activity in Washington, D.C., of what appear to be rogue surveillance devices that could be used to hijack cellphones, listen to calls and read texts.

This is believed to be the first time the U.S. government has publicly acknowledged the devices in Washington, according to The Associated Press.

In response to a query from Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, DHS said that it has "observed anomalous activity in the National Capital Region (NCR) that appears to be consistent with International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI) catchers."

The agency added that it believes "the malicious use of IMSI catchers is a real and growing risk." Wyden wrote to DHS in November asking for information about the use of IMSI catchers by foreign intelligence agencies.

Known as IMSI catchers, for the unique identifying phone code called an IMSI, the surveillance devices trick mobile phones into thinking they have logged onto legitimate cell networks, such as Verizon or AT&T, when in fact the signals have been hijacked.

DHS also said that it was "aware of anomalous activity" outside of D.C. that "appears to be consistent with IMSI catchers," though it isn't able to pinpoint the activity to "specific entities or devices." The letter also stated that the "use of IMSI catchers by foreign governments may threaten U.S. national and economic security."

It's not clear that anything has been done about this, aside from DHS reporting its findings to "federal partners."

DHS told Wyden that it is "not aware of any current DHS technical capability to detect IMSI catchers." That would require more funding, it said.

But companies who make the devices have for years been putting out maps that suggest a significant presence of the surveillance equipment in Washington. “I would bet money that there are governments that are spying in D.C.,” said Christopher Soghoian, who is principal technologist for the American Civil Liberties Union and has written extensively on the use and abuse of IMSI catchers. “Whether you can detect that with a $3,000 device, I don’t know.”

The Federal Communications Commission is sufficiently concerned about IMSI catchers — which would be illegal to use without a search warrant or other legal authority — that this summer it formed a task force to study possible abuse by foreign governments or private individuals. It does not have authority, FCC officials say, over government use of this surveillance technology.

As CryptoPhone’s Goldsmith acknowledges, if there are indeed IMSI catchers in the locations his company reported on Wednesday, the CryptoPhone cannot easily determine whether they are deployed by the U.S. government, a local police force, a foreign intelligence agency or some other entity.

Experts say the most common users of IMSI catchers are law enforcement agencies, but such surveillance gear has become so affordable and common that many security experts believe that criminals are using them to spy on targets, including perhaps the police themselves. Reasonably skilled hobbyists can build an IMSI catcher, which typically consists of high-tech boxes with radio antennas, for less than $1,500. Goldsmith’s company also sells IMSI catchers to government agencies outside the United States.

A marketing executive from the company CryptoPhone drove around Washington looking for IMSI catchers in 2014 – and he says he found 18 in less than two days.

That map, released by The Washington Post, showed areas of surveillance clustered around government buildings such as the Capitol and the White House. It's worth noting that "some security experts are skeptical that the CryptoPhone can pinpoint with accuracy the location of the IMSI catchers," Carol reported.

According to the AP, "the Federal Communications Commission, which regulates the nation's airwaves, formed a task force on the subject four years ago, but it never produced a report and no longer meets regularly."

Wyden said in a statement that the FCC has not held phone companies accountable "despite repeated warnings and clear evidence that our phone networks are being exploited by foreign governments and hackers."

Stingray Spies

Law enforcement agencies across the U.S. are using a device so secret that agencies are required to sign a non-disclosure agreement before they can buy or use it.

The device is commonly referred to as a "Stingray," although several companies manufacture models under various brand names, including "Kingfish" and "Hailstorm." Stingrays are made and sold by Harris Corporation.

Local law enforcement can do things now that we used to relegate to the realm of spies and espionage. Stingray-type devices trick a target's cell phone into connecting to it by masquerading as the strongest cell phone tower in the area -- one phones think belongs to a phone carrier like Verizon or AT&T. The tracking device pinpoints a cell phone's location down to about three yards and extracts the numbers of all incoming and outgoing calls.

Stingray users say they are not using these devices to spy on individuals-Uh…right!

Stingrays sweep up personal cell phone and location information from more than just the target's cell phone. Stingrays collect data from hundreds, thousands or even tens of thousands of innocent bystanders, all at the same time.

"It's not just one phone that responds, it's any phone within the area. So, police are unquestionably collecting location information on innocent Americans," says ACLU attorney and privacy expert Peter Bibring.

Stingrays are suitcase-sized and portable. They can be driven into a target area in search of a suspect or flown over a wider area on board a plane or even a drone. The U.S. Marshals Service flies so-called "stingrays on a plane" out of five key airports across the nation. That device, used by the Marshals to track down fugitives and other suspects, is known as a "dirtbox" because of the initials of Boeing subsidiary that manufactures it - Digital Receiver Technology.

The signals sent by Stingray-type devices penetrate the walls of peoples' homes, forcing a phone to connect to it, in a sort of digital "search and seizure."

"When interpreting the 4th Amendment, the courts have always drawn a bright line at the entrance to the home," says the ACLU's Bibring. "The concern about Stingrays is that they effectively allow police to conduct searches inside your home."