Department of Homeland Security has detected what appeared
to be the use of a controversial cellphone surveillance
technology in D.C.
federal study found signs that surveillance devices for
intercepting cellphone calls and texts were operating near the
White House and other sensitive locations in the Washington
area last year.
Department of Homeland Security program discovered evidence
of the surveillance devices, called IMSI catchers, as part of
federal testing last year, according to a letter
from DHS to Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) on May
22. The letter didn't specify what entity operated the
devices and left open the possibility that there could be
alternative explanations for the suspicious cellular signals
collected by the federal testing program last year.
discovery bolsters years of independent
research suggesting that foreign
intelligence agencies use sophisticated interception technology to
spy on officials working within the hub of federal power in the
nation’s capital. Experts in surveillance technology say that IMSI
catchers — sometimes known by one popular brand name, StingRay —
are a standard part of the tool kit for many foreign intelligence
services, including for such geopolitical rivals as Russia and
DHS spokesman confirmed the contents of the letter to Wyden but
declined further comment.
admission from DHS bolsters my concern about stingrays and other
spying devices being used to spy on Americans’ phones," Wyden said
in a statement on Thursday. "Given the reports of rogue spying
devices being identified near the White House and other government
facilities, I fear that foreign intelligence services could target
the president and other senior officials."
DHS letter came in response to a meeting last month in which Wyden
pushed for a more aggressive federal response to cellular system
insecurity. IMSI catchers are widely used by local, state and
federal police, as well as foreign intelligence agencies.
devices work by simulating cell towers to trick nearby phones into
connecting, allowing the IMSI catchers to collect calls, texts and
data streams. Unlike some other forms of cellphone interception,
IMSI catchers must be near targeted devices to work.
they are in range, IMSI catchers also can deliver malicious
software to targeted devices for the purpose of stealing
information stored on them or conducting longer-term monitoring of
same May 22 letter revealed that DHS was aware of reports that a
global cellular network messaging system, called
SS7, was being used to spy on Americans through their
cellphones. Such surveillance, which can intercept calls and
locate cellphones from anywhere in the world, are sometimes used
in conjunction with IMSI catchers.
of the Secret Service patrol from the top of the White House.
(Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
America, a defense and law enforcement technology contractor
based in Las Vegas, has reported detecting IMSI catchers
throughout the Washington area while conducting
testing for private clients.
company, which said it has federal contracts, declined to comment
on work it has done for the U.S. government but said in a
statement, “ESD America has several corporate and foreign
government clients whom we have assisted in the detection of
potential IMSI Catcher operation across many cities including
the tests that ESD conducted for private clients, which took place
over the past three years, the company said it had detected signs
of IMSI catchers near the White House, the FBI headquarters, the
Senate, the Pentagon, the Russian Embassy and along the collection
of other foreign embassies in an area known as Embassy Row in
Washington area’s dense collection of U.S. officials and sensitive
facilities makes it prime real estate for cellular interception,
any large intelligence agency, the United States, especially now,
is a high-value target,” said Thomas Rid, a political-science
professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International
Studies. “They get paid to go after high-value targets. It’s their
job. … It’s a complete no-brainer.”
letter said DHS officials, during a pilot program last year, “did
observe anomalous activity that appeared consistent with IMSI
catcher technology” within the Washington area, including near the
White House. It cautioned that DHS “has neither validated nor
attributed such activity to specific entities, devices or
purposes” and said that some of the suspicious signals may have
been “emanating from legitimate cell towers.”
on cellular interception say that various IMSI catchers have
distinctive designs, making it clear from the resulting cellular
signals and behavior whether they were made
by U.S. companies or by manufacturers in other
liberties groups have long warned that IMSI catchers are used with
few limits by U.S. authorities, who collect calls, texts and other
data from innocent bystanders as they conduct surveillance on
criminal suspects or other legitimate targets. Increasingly,
though, critics have sought to portray the technology as posing
threats to national security because foreign intelligence services
use them on Americans, both while in the United States and abroad.
is a huge concern from a national security perspective," said
Laura Moy, deputy director of Georgetown Law's Center on Privacy
& Technology. "People have been warning for years … that these
devices were used by foreign agents operating on American soil."
surveillance devices are hard to counteract, although encrypted
calling and messaging apps — such as Signal, WhatsApp or Apple's
FaceTime — provide protection against IMSI catchers. Some experts
advocate wider deployment of such encrypted communication tools
within the U.S. government, along with a move away from
traditional cellular calling and texting.
and others also have called on the Federal Communications
Commission, which along with DHS oversees the security
of U.S. cellular networks, to institute stronger protections
against IMSI catchers, including possible technical fixes that
cellular carriers or devicemakers could implement to resist
FCC said in response to questions about the discovery of IMSI
catchers in Washington: "We continue to monitor reports of the use
of IMSI devices and to coordinate closely with our counterparts at
DHS, DOJ, and the FBI. The FCC strenuously enforces its rules
against the unauthorized use of licensed radio spectrum and
harmful interference with licensed users of the airwaves."