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had already defeated the repurposed cell tower spoofers, so whatever was included in those documents is already outdated.)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.