Senator Wyden Asks DHS To Look Into Cell Tower Spoofer Use By Foreign Entities In Washington DC

from the why-hasn't-the-homeland-security-agency-looked-into-this-already? dept

A few years back, news broke about the apparent existence of stationary cell tower spoofers in the Washington DC area. While some could conceivably have been operated by local law enforcement, the location of the fake cell towers suggested they might be the work of foreign actors.

Continuing a sort of cross-country tour to detect phony cell towers, also known as interceptors or IMSI catchers, researchers associated with the security firm ESD America have detected 15 of the covert devices in Washington D.C., plus three more in nearby Virginia.

The company used their ultrasecure CryptoPhone 500 to search for the interceptors, which can compromise phones through baseband hardware and are believed to have a range of roughly 1 mile. ESD America’s phones allegedly detected telltale signs of call interception in the vicinity of the White House, the Russian Embassy, the Supreme Court, the Department of Commerce, and the Russell Senate Office Building, among other landmark buildings.

Since then, not much has changed. Or if it has, no updates have been issued. Apparently, the fake cell towers are still there and in use, unmolested by local law enforcement or federal agencies. Ron Wyden would like someone to do something about it and has sent a letter [PDF] to DHS Under Secretary Christopher Krebs, asking the agency to look into it.

In 2014, security researchers reported that they detected a number of IMSI catchers in the National Capital Region, which they suggested may have been operated by foreign governments. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) subsequently established a task force to investigate the threat posed by foreign governments and criminals using IMSI catcher technology. Unfortunately, the FCC has yet to issue any public findings or guidance since then.

Whether foreign intelligence services and criminals are using IMSI catchers to spy on senior members of the US. government is undoubtedly a question worth answering. Foreign government surveillance of senior American political and business leaders would obviously pose a significant threat to our country’s national and economic security.

Wyden would like to know if the DHS has seen any firsthand evidence of these tower spoofers and if it has provided any of this info to Congressional committees. He also wants to know if the DHS has the technology to detect and locate these IMSI catchers and, if not, wants to know what it needs to begin the hunt for foreign surveillance devices.

Certainly the DHS has the tech to do its own cell tower spoofing. A recent FOIA request by Buzzfeed found the DHS has been deploying Stingray devices about once a day for the last three years. A cell tower spoofer isn’t the best tool for detecting other cell tower spoofers, but it could turn into a DC-based Spy vs. Spy operation, with the DHS running its equipment to locate competitors’ foreign-owned equipment, with the inherent escalation that scenario implies.

The thing about cell tower spoofers is they can be used to intercept communications. That functionality is available, although we have yet to see (acknowledged) use of Stingray devices to eavesdrop here in the US. The tacit agreement to limit Stingray use to locating cell phones is not without its own issues, but there’s no agreement, unspoken or otherwise, limiting foreign entities from intercepting phones calls and text messages with their devices. (Undoubtedly, any cell tower “listening posts” deployed by the US in other countries would be similarly unaffected by voluntary limitations on domestic deployment.)

If answers are given to Wyden, it’s highly doubtful we’ll see them. US agencies are still completely uncomfortable discussing their own tower spoofers. Evidence of communications interception by foreign agencies will likely be buried under black ink and discussed behind closed doors.

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Comments on “Senator Wyden Asks DHS To Look Into Cell Tower Spoofer Use By Foreign Entities In Washington DC”

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20 Comments
Bergman (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Especially considering that even if it is foreign espionage agents operating at least some of them, it might not actually be illegal for them to do so!

Every law enforcement exemption to laws like the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act or various wiretapping statutes requires a warrant to trigger the exemption. But our government doesn’t usually bother with a warrant before deploying a IMSI catcher, which means every time they did so it was either not an unauthorized access or interception…or they committed multiple felonies they have no legal immunity to.

So it’s entirely possible that our national capital is being spied upon by foreign agents, but there is nothing to be done about it because our government will insist it’s not illegal to protect their own loopholes.

Andy says:

Re: Re:

I laughed so much after reading this article, the fact that it was in DC and there are many politicians in DC means that many of there phone calls would have been recorded by this fake device that they connected to , and those conversations will be out there for anyone to hear eventually unless Russia decides that the conversations they have recorded are too juicy and could be used to blackmail the politicians in question…

The justice system allowed this to happen and they are responsible for the mess that comes out from there allowing this type of spoof device to even be made.

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

The FCC was to busy counting up all of the fake letters supporting killing net neutrality, to worry about fake cell phone towers.

Perhaps if we explained that these things can record them taking orders from their corporate masters, they might care more.

If a foriegn power wanted to undermine democracy, texts & audio logs showing how owned by the corps the government is would take care of it. Imagine what a congresscritter would be willing to do to make sure that information never saw the light of day… screaming fake news can only distract from so much.

With the sudden revelation of a secret taxpayer slushfund paying off people abused by those in DC, and how much has been paid out, does anyone doubt that anyone running a cell spoofer has enough dirt to get whatever they want?

Whats worse is they have no idea if these are all placed by foriegn powers, domestic use could prove much more useful.

Anonymous Coward says:

Maybe it’s a quid pro quo. “Hey UK, can you listen in on our Senators and we will listen in on your MPs. If we find out anything good we can share it.”
If they get caught, it’s just the act of a foreign government spying, not their own government. That makes the clean up a bit easier and there is the deniability aspect.

ECA (profile) says:

Concealed??

“the location of the fake cell towers suggested they might be the work of foreign actors. “

Actors…Love that word..

as well as Instigators, Initiators, and conspirators..
This is a high energy item, to receive and RE-transmit cellphone service?? it would need to SIT, near an Tower and SAVE power or to HIDE easily..

ODDS??
it was a previous setup, that was dismantled..(ASK THE CORPS)
Installed by the CIA to Confuse or MONITOR the area..and never Documented..

This is a TOWER..not just an antenna..Any pictures?? Any tower design needs to be 20-60 foot high.. An antenna can be Much shorter, but looses out on Signal strength..unless you are VERY close to an ALREADY setup Tower..
AND cellphone towers are MONITORED/FENCED/… The company OWNING them wants NOTHING to happen to them..and a small security system is INSTALLED for anyone entering..

With only knowing that THERE ARE Towers int he area, why isnt there MORE info.. It has to have POWER..It has to be RECENT to another location..The equipment inside IS NOT BASIC or STUPID..it has to be SETUP, and controlled..

orbitalinsertion (profile) says:

Re: Concealed??

No, it is not a tower. It’s a mobile tower spoofer. Of course they have less range, but they have them just where they need to be. You wouldn’t need a special detector to find a mysterious cell tower un-owned by any known telco. (But then some people would probably also be claiming it is a super-seekrit HAARP expansion. No tinfoil, please!)

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