Law Enforcement Agencies Scramble For Pricey Cell Tower Spoofer Upgrades As Older Networks Are Shut Down

from the losing-the-tech-arms-race-to-slow-moving-service-providers dept

The surveillance device that dare not speak its name (thanks, FBI!) is on its last legs… or at least one version is. Cyrus Farivar at Ars Technica reports that law enforcement agencies are moving quickly to avoid being locked out of the cell tower spoofing racket.
Documents released last week by the City of Oakland reveal that it is one of a handful of American jurisdictions attempting to upgrade an existing cellular surveillance system, commonly known as a stingray.

The Oakland Police Department, the nearby Fremont Police Department, and the Alameda County District Attorney jointly applied for a grant from the Department of Homeland Security to "obtain a state-of-the-art cell phone tracking system," the records show.
The Stingray is Harris Corporation's most infamous product. But the original version has its limitations. While the nation's cell phone carriers have largely moved on to 3G/4G networks, Stingray devices without optional upgrades haven't. All they can access is 2G, the default connection when nothing better is available. Those looking to capture cell activity on 3G and 4G networks will need to purchase Harris' "Hailstorm" upgrade… which also means they'll need to start generating paperwork and asking federal and local governments for funds. The problem with these actions is that they have the tendency to expose those in need of new capabilities.
Other locales known to be in the process of related federally-funded upgrades include Tacoma, Wash.; Baltimore, Md.; Chesterfield, Va.; Sunrise, Fla.; and Oakland County, Mich. There are likely many more, but such purchases are often shrouded in secrecy.
FOIA requests have turned up some information, but much of it is redacted and many more requests have been refused or ignored. With the federal government itself instructing local law enforcement to cover up its acquisition and use of tower spoofers, the FOIA process becomes even more of an uphill battle.

Law enforcement can't be happy to see 2G networks being switched off. When you're in the untargeted dragnet business, 2G is a willing supplier of "business records."
2G networks are notoriously insecure. Handsets operating on 2G will readily accept communication from another device purporting to be a valid cell tower, like a stingray. So the stingray takes advantage of this feature by jamming the 3G and 4G signals, forcing the phone to use a 2G signal.
What's considered a criminal act when performed by a civilian is just SOP for law enforcement. The same can be said for the fake sworn documents (warrant requests, subpoenas) obtained to cover the use of these devices. The manufacturer with the most devices in use is no better than the agencies it sells to. When approached about this scramble for upgrades, Harris Corporation borrowed the NSA's Glomar.
"We do not comment on solutions we may or may not provide to classified Department of Defense or law enforcement agencies," Jim Burke, a spokesman for Harris, told Ars.
The timeline for 2G shutoff is still vague. Verizon says "by the end of the decade." AT&T says 2017. So there's still some time for law enforcement agencies to avoid being bypassed by the slow rollout of network upgrades. But between now and then, these agencies need to put together nearly $500,000 just to stay current. And as usual, as much as possible about the process will be obscured, because otherwise the terrorists criminals win.
"Once that's disclosed then the targets of the technology will know how to avoid it," [Alameda County Assistant DA Michael] O’Connor, the assistant district attorney, told Ars. "Once the bad guys understand how to beat it then they will."
It seems like all the bad guys would need to know is that the technology exists and is being used and just stay off their cell phones. But in this day and age, being completely unconnected while away from home is untenable, if not nearly impossible. Communication is key in criminal enterprises, and the steady disappearance of pay phones doesn't leave them with many options. O'Connor completely overstates the "exposure" danger and follows it up with this:
"It can't easily be resolved—the public's right to know, the Fourth Amendment rights of people who might be subject to this kind of analysis and the needs of law enforcement to keep sources confidential especially in a day and age when the bad guys have acquired considerable technology that is turned against good guys."
One: if it can't "easily be resolved," why not err on the Fourth Amendment/public knowledge side, rather than on the cop side? Two: the bad guys' "considerable technology" isn't lapping law enforcement's. This ridiculous claim has been used as justification for warrantless cell phone searches, and it failed to move the Supreme Court justices. Pushing this narrative now just makes the pusher look like the sort of credulous rube who would put together a Powerpoint presentation on food-trucks-as-terrorist-vehicles.

The bright side here is that more paperwork is being generated… which eventually means more of the public will know their local law enforcement is scooping up their location/connection info (most likely without a warrant) at any given time and is not above killing their network to do it.

Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Sep 3rd, 2014 @ 4:23am

    Why not VoIP with a bit of TOR or VPN flavor?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Sep 3rd, 2014 @ 4:29am

    How to shut down 2G on your phone

    On Android: dial *#*#4636#*#* (*#*#INFO#*#*). When you press the last *, it will go to a hidden settings screen. Choose the first option. Scroll a bit and you'll see a mode selector. Choose "WCDMA only" and congrats, your phone will now use only 3G (there should be other options there for you LTE users). This setting is lost on reboot, so don't forget to do this every time you turn on your phone.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3.  
    identicon
    Polly, Sep 3rd, 2014 @ 4:34am

    does not want a cracker

    How is it they do not need many many warrants to do this?

    If it is not wire tapping, then it is cracking (commonly referred to as hacking) and that too is illegal - unless, apparently, one is above the law.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4.  
    icon
    That One Guy (profile), Sep 3rd, 2014 @ 4:51am

    Re: does not want a cracker

    Silly person, police don't have to follow the law, because they are the law, and as such, anything they do is automatically legal, even if it isn't. /s

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Sep 3rd, 2014 @ 5:09am

    And once again

    The perverse relationship between the gov and monied interests trying to hock its wares on us rears its ugly head. The efforts to eliminate the corrupting influence of money in politics cannot come soon enough

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Sep 3rd, 2014 @ 5:29am

    Re: And once again

    If it were not money, it would be something else.
    It is corruption that needs to be eliminated, but it seems to be a human trait. Is it hereditary or a learned condition?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7.  
    identicon
    DogBreath, Sep 3rd, 2014 @ 6:33am

    Re: Re: does not want a cracker

    Who does the police think they are? Nixon?

    I don't remember giving the police presidential powers. The FBI, CIA, NSA and other clandestine agencies that can not be mentioned without a free one-way trip to an undisclosed blacksite, yes. I absolutely remember giving them the power, but it was immediately redacted from my memory because that is what they told me. But the police? I don't think so.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Sep 3rd, 2014 @ 6:35am

    Don't you think your country is out of control when your police force actively commits crimes in plain site by saying it's to fight hidden crime.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9.  
    icon
    John Fenderson (profile), Sep 3rd, 2014 @ 8:21am

    Re:

    Yes

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Sep 3rd, 2014 @ 8:50am

    Can't Easily Be Resolved

    "can't easily be resolved"
    Translation: When the constitution gets in the way it's time to ignore the constitution.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Sep 3rd, 2014 @ 9:03am

    Wired has a nice story about a German company offering a phone with a firewall that detects when a spoofer tries to connect to your phone, guess all my tax dollars will be wasted. See

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Sep 3rd, 2014 @ 9:04am

    Re:

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13.  
    icon
    cubicleslave (profile), Sep 3rd, 2014 @ 9:08am

    Re: Re: Re: does not want a cracker

    Funny... I don't recall granting the local police those eavesdropping powers (or associated location-tracking powers) either. And I have a hard time believing that criminals are that tech-advanced.
    Perhaps we need an anti-Stingray device... you know, for the good of the people, us puny civilians.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14.  
    icon
    Roger Strong (profile), Sep 3rd, 2014 @ 10:27am

    Re: How to shut down 2G on your phone

    On BlackBerry 10 phones: Go into Settings / Network and Communications / Mobile Network. Change "Network Mode" from "4G & 3G & 2G" to "4G & 3G."

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  15.  
    identicon
    Michael, Sep 3rd, 2014 @ 10:45am

    Re: Re: How to shut down 2G on your phone

    The 3 people that have those phones thank you.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  16.  
    icon
    Roger Strong (profile), Sep 3rd, 2014 @ 11:09am

    Re: Re: Re: How to shut down 2G on your phone

    I'm in Canada. A lot more of us have them.

    Except Scott. He's a dick.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  17.  
    icon
    John Fenderson (profile), Sep 3rd, 2014 @ 11:52am

    Re: Re: How to shut down 2G on your phone

    Yes, this is pretty much how you do it with Android phones as well. There's no need to dial a magic number, you can just change it in the system settings: http://www.wikihow.com/Change-Mobile-Network-Type-on-Android

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  18.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Sep 3rd, 2014 @ 8:06pm

    To be fair, I'm pretty sure my local Lobster food truck is a terrorist organization for the damage their lobster bisque does to my diet.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  19.  
    icon
    RegularWriting (profile), Sep 4th, 2014 @ 10:29pm

    This article has been linked to the News Feed:

    http://www.regularwriting.com/2014/09/news-feed-46/

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  20.  
    identicon
    Don't Spy On Me!, Sep 5th, 2014 @ 5:26pm

    Fake Cell Phone Towers

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2742820/Encrypted-cell-phones-spotting-fake-cell-towers-gain -access-smartphone-operating-systems.html

    A security company selling Samsung Galaxy S3s with enhanced encryption says it has found 19 'phony cell towers' located throughout the United States.

    Customers using the Cryptophone 500, sold by ESD America, have detected signals from transmitters masquerading as cell towers that, if a cell phone connects to it, can track the phone's location or leave data on its operating system vulnerable to attacks.

    A map released by the company shows hits for these fake towers in New York City, Chicago, Dallas and Los Angeles. ESD America's CEO, Les Goldsmith, told Popular Science one tower in Nevada was found near a government facility out in the desert. ...

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  21.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Sep 7th, 2014 @ 5:57am

    Yikes!

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]


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