UK Bill Would Force Service Providers To Set Up Fake Cell Towers For Surveillance Of Prisoners' Communications

from the compulsory-attendance dept

The latest arena for deployment of cell tower spoofers is prisons. Along with the diminished rights and lowered expectation of privacy afforded to prisoners, those incarcerated can now expect their cell phone calls to be blocked or intercepted.

The Register reports a new bill being introduced in the UK would give prisons legal authority to install IMSI catchers to monitor prisoners’ communications and track/locate contraband devices. The use of Stingray devices in prisons isn’t exactly new, although it hasn’t really received much attention. Last year, Motherboard reported the Scottish prison system had been deploying cell tower spoofers for one specific reasons: to make prisoners’ cell phone communications impossible. The devices blocked 2G and 3G signals, according to FOI’ed documents. (The documents also noted prisoners had already defeated the repurposed cell tower spoofers, so whatever was included in those documents is already outdated.)

In the US, prisons are using similar devices, although no one has copped to deploying a name-brand Stingray within the walls of a prison. ACLU tech head Chris Soghoian’s 2014 report on Stingray devices cites a Commerce Department paper on the use of cell tower spoofers to thwart communications and locate contraband devices.

There’s a twist in the UK legislation, though, that takes it past previous prison surveillance efforts. This bill would compel the cooperation of telcos, rather than make use of existing cell tower spoofer technology.

Provisions in the new bill will allow the Justice Secretary to order networks to deploy so-called “IMSI catchers” to prevent, detect or investigate the use of mobile phones in prisons.

Currently fake base stations can only be deployed under the legal provisions in the Prisons (Interference with Wireless Telegraphy) Act 2012, which restrict their deployment to within prison walls – and further, only allows prison governors to deploy them.

The new proposals therefore expand the ability of the state to spy on innocent citizens by further co-opting mobile phone companies’ technical abilities.

Rather than leave this to state entities possessing state-owned devices, the bill recruits cell service providers to perform the technical heavy lifting. While prison officials would be able to deploy a device inside a prison’s walls to minimize interference with outside cell phone traffic, this bill appears to encourage the deployment of fake cell towers (or the repurposing of existing cell towers) outside prison walls, which would greatly increase the possibility of disrupting legitimate cell phone use and subject a number of non-prisoners to data/communications collections by the prison.

The bill contains no wording pertaining to these two issues. There’s no requirement to minimize interference or discard irrelevant data/communications. All it does is expand the UK government’s power to compel participation in its prison surveillance efforts. This lack of regulatory specificity is par for the course, as the Register points out.

In effect, use of IMSI catchers is effectively unregulated, albeit legal for the state and bodies authorised by the state under the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act 2014. It remains illegal for ordinary citizens to use them.

UK law enforcement are also using IMSI catchers, but have yet to be subjected to the (belated) judicial and legislative scrutiny we see happening here in the US. Stingray use in the UK falls under legal authorities for the interception of communications, all of which were written long before police had the (portable) power to disrupt communications and harvest communications and data.

The debate over this legislation may change that. While law enforcement agencies are generally receptive to new laws that expand their power and reach, there’s always the danger legislative discussions may lead to more direct oversight and/or the removal of a few layers of opacity.

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Comments on “UK Bill Would Force Service Providers To Set Up Fake Cell Towers For Surveillance Of Prisoners' Communications”

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16 Comments
JoeCool (profile) says:

Various reasons

They’ll tell you the main reason for this is prisoners may have a cell phone smuggled in for illegal purposes. While that is true in some cases, it’s not the only reason for this. They also want to FORCE the inmates to rely on prison phones, which are monitored and cost an arm and a leg to use. Gotta squeeze every last cent from prisoners.

orbitalinsertion (profile) says:

So they would have “normal” cell towers… spoof cell towers. Got it.

And then someone gets to intercept communications. Be nice if they simply did it by determining location, and piss off all the guards and administration. but that wouldn’t get them extra spying on whatever they can vacuum up.

Expect strategically placed new prisons. Or, for purposes of convenience, all cell towers are enlisted.

Anonymous Coward says:

yet something else the UK wants to do, thanks to the bullshit laws and underhand practices that the USA gets away with! makes me wonder what the UK will do next just to try to keep up with the USA in eroding even more freedom and privacy from the people, whether in jail or not!! and the likes of China, Tehran, N.Korea are the bad boys? not any more they’re not!!

Jeff Green (profile) says:

Not quite as it appears

In most UK prisons (that is excluding the lowest category ones where prisoners are allowed out during the day) no-one is allowed a mobile phone. Not prisoners, prison officers, governors, visitors even lawyers. Any use of a mobile phone in a prison is unlawful so it isn’t possible to spy n any innocent communications within the prison.
That is not to say that a “fake” tower is a good idea or not, merely that if it is deployed as the law provides it cannot do as alleged in the article. The article reports that the law says the justice secretary can order the use to prevent detect or investigate phone use inside a prison, therefore anyone outside a prison caught up may well have a case against anyone interfering with their signal.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Not quite as it appears

Any use of a mobile phone in a prison is unlawful so it isn’t possible to spy n any innocent communications within the prison.

You seem to be unaware of how radio signals propagate. They do not abruptly stop at the prison yard boundaries. If they did, there would be no need for fake towers. So while there may be no innocent communications within the prison to spy on, there certainly are outside of it and the two will be co-mingled.

Jeff Green (profile) says:

Re: Re: Not quite as it appears

You may perhaps be unaware that not all prisons are situated in the middle of suburban rows of houses, nor that in the uk with its high population density cell towers are generally of low power and thus limited range.
No-one has said all prisons must adopt this strategy, nor did I say I agreed with it. Merely that it wasn’t, per se, a direct assault on the freedoms of the general populace.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Not quite as it appears

So many points of confusion in that missive.

You may perhaps be unaware that not all prisons are situated in the middle of suburban rows of houses,

Cell phones are mobile devices. They work outside of, and are not necessarily located in, peoples homes. You almost seem to be confusing them with the old land line phones.

in the uk with its high population density cell towers are generally of low power and thus limited range.

Sorry to disappoint you, but they still will not go right up to and then stop at the edge of the prison yard. That’s not how it works. Take it from an engineer.

No-one has said all prisons must adopt this strategy

No one has said that any must. But the bill would seem to authorize it for all.

Jeff Green (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Not quite as it appears

Yes of course they are mobile devices and of course you can walk up to the outside of a prison and try to use your phone. If it doesn’t work your phone is STILL a mobile device and you can walk a little way away.

I cannot see any pressing need for a phone to work while leaning on the walls of a prison.

Now if you want to argue that the legislation should include terms to ensure minimum possible interference with phone signals outside the prison I’ll agree you may be onto something (although in UK legislation such things are usually not put in the primary bill they certainly can be).

I would assume that these devices would be deployed to cover main prison buildings, by and large governors are not worried about prisoners using cell phones near the prison wall because the prisoner could be seen there. There is likely o be some leakage but probably very small. There is also certain to be somewhere inside the prison where vanilla signals can be received, such is the nature of the beast.
As I said I do not necessarily agree with this bill but I do not see it as a broad assault on the privacy of citizens. There are many places in the UK where mobile phones don’t work, either because there is something that interferes with them or because there is a coverage shadow this doesn’t seem to be any more onerous a problem than these.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Not quite as it appears

There are many places in the UK where mobile phones don’t work, either because there is something that interferes with them or because there is a coverage shadow this doesn’t seem to be any more onerous a problem than these.

I think most people can recognize that there is a vast difference between your phone not working and it being tapped. The two are no where near equivalent.

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