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Mysterious devices have allowed foreign spies to track DC cell phones for years

The Department of Homeland Security logo hangs in San Diego during a news conference on October 26, 2017. (John Gibbins/San Diego Union-Tribune/TNS)
April 04, 2018

Although it has been an ongoing issue, the U.S. government just this week admitted to the public that there are cell phone-site simulators in Washington, D.C., that could give foreign moles, crooks and spies the ability to garner sensitive information by tracking cell phones and diverting calls and messages.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) admitted in a March 26 letter to Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden that in 2017, DHS had identified suspected unauthorized cell-site simulators in Washington, D.C.

Wyden’s office said not much has been done to rectify this issue, according to the Associated Press.

The cell-site simulators, known as Stingrays, operate by fooling mobile devices into securing onto them as opposed to authentic cell towers. Advanced versions can listen in on calls by rerouting them to unencrypted 2G wireless technology, while others encrypt malware, or malicious software.

In November 2017, Wyden asked for information from DHS pertaining to the unauthorized use of the cell-site simulators, and DHS replied they had observed “anomalous activity” consistent with Stingrays in the Washington, D.C., area.

The lack of funds and equipment is cited as the reason more isn’t being done, even though it “may threaten U.S. national and economic security,” noted the top official in the department’s National Protection and Programs Directorate, the AP said.

Cell-site simulators were revealed in 2014 during public sweeps, by mobile security consultancy Integricell, near the White House, the Supreme Court, the Commerce Department and the Pentagon.

This has been a hush-hush problem because to fix it is costly, and it could lead to conflict with U.S. intelligence and law enforcement.

“To the extent that there is a major problem here, it’s largely due to the FCC [Federal Communications Commission] not doing its job,” said Laura Moy of the Center on Privacy and Technology at Georgetown University.

Moy said the agency should be requiring wireless carriers to protect their networks from such security threats and “ensuring that anyone transmitting over licensed spectrum actually has a license to do it,” the AP reported.