from the this-all-sounds-very-familiar... dept
More privacy-invasion has arrived in the guise of "good." This time it's Russia doing the invading. An article in Izvestia notes that the Moscow Metro is planning to install short-range Stingray-esque cell phone tracking to (ostensibly) recover stolen phones and monitor terrorist activity. It's all very legal according to the Metro spokesman, who says law enforcement is allowed to track SIM cards without a warrant or additional measures, as the card falls under the category of "company property."
Andrey Mokhov, the operations chief of the Moscow Metro system’s police department, said that the system will have a range of five meters (16 feet). “If the [SIM] card is wanted, the system automatically creates a route of its movement and passes that information to the station attendant,” Mokhov said.Much like so-called "just metadata," accessing a SIM card via this sort of device opens up the cell phone user to all sorts of dubious surveillance. And, much like US law enforcement claiming license plates only represent a car (not a person), Russian law enforcement is claiming it only tracks "SIM cards," not individuals.
Many outside experts, both in and outside Russia, though, believe that what local authorities are actually deploying is a “stingray,” or “IMSI catcher”—a device that can fool a phone and SIM into reading from a fake mobile phone tower. (IMSI, or an International Mobile Subscriber Identity number, is a 15-digit unique number that sits on every SIM card.) Such devices can be used as a simple way to see what phone numbers are being used in a given area or even to intercept the audio of voice calls.
Keir Giles, of the Conflict Studies Research Centre, an Oxford-based Russian think tank, told Ars that Russian authorities are claiming a legal technicality.This is the way it goes these days, even in the US, which has supposedly held itself to a higher standard when it comes to respecting its citizens' privacy. Any loophole will do. License plates are not people. Metadata isn't specific. Long-term tracking isn't a search or an invasion of privacy. Cell phone tower spoofing equipment and surveillance drones are utilized with little oversight and fewer ground rules, presumably under the assumption that it's easier to ask forgiveness than permission. Warrants and other protections are now extraneous niceties.
"They are claiming that although they are legally prohibited from indiscriminate surveillance of people, the fact that they are following SIM cards which are the property of the mobile phone operators rather than the individuals carrying those SIM cards makes the tracking plans perfectly legal," he said, adding that this reasoning is "weaselly and ridiculous."
Of course, Russia has never held itself up a paragon of civil liberties, but critics still find this particular move surprising.
“Many surveillance technologies are created and deployed with legitimate aims in mind, however the deploying of IMSI catchers sniffing mobile phones en masse is neither proportionate nor necessary for the stated aims of identifying stolen phones,” Eric King of Privacy International told Ars.Like any other broad surveillance effort, no one believes it will be limited to the stated aims. Another point lending credence to the feeling that Russian law enforcement has more than "stolen phones" in mind concerns the logistics: with a range of only 16 feet, a device will need to be placed roughly every 32 feet to be effective, a cost that certainly outweighs the value of the equipment recovered. Of course, as we've seen in the past, no one seems able to put a price tag on "preventing terrorism," and presumably Russia feels the same way. If catching cell phones thieves doesn't make fiscal sense, fighting an unwinnable war will put the balance sheet back in the black.
“Likewise the legal loophole they claim to be using to legitimize the practice—distinguishing between tracking a person from a SIM card—is nonsensical and unjustifiable. It's surprising it's being discussed so openly, given in many countries like the United Kingdom, they refuse to even acknowledge the existence of IMSI catchers, and any government use of the technology is strictly national security exempted.”