The Department of Homeland Security reportedly acknowledged in a letter to Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon that it found unauthorized cell-site simulators called Stingrays in Washington, D.C., in 2017.
It is reportedly the first time the U.S. government, according to The Associated Press, has recognized the existence of the surveillance technology, which has been referred to as secretive and “invasive” by some privacy-focused nonprofits.
Details about who may be operating the spying tools are not included in the AP’s report, but it doesn’t seem much has been done to remove them so far — a potentially worrisome prospect since foreign adversaries and their spies could use them to snoop on certain communications and track particular cell phones. After all, almost every major government department, including key intelligence and military ones like the FBI, CIA and NSA, are based in the larger DMV (District/Maryland/Virginia) area.
Stingrays work by imitating cell phone towers and transmitting signals to technically dupe the mobile devices in the surrounding area into sending information like location and identity right back. Despite the fact that utilization has generally been kept from the eye of the public, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has been able to shine a light under the apparent law enforcement cloak with some success. It has identified several states where police departments are known to at least own cell-site simulators, while keeping a running tab. (RELATED: The Battle Over The Government’s Massive Surveillance Powers Has Arrived)
“First, they collect information about the devices and whereabouts of third parties, not just the targets of an investigation,” Linda Lye, a staff attorney for the ACLU of Northern California wrote in a blog post describing why her organization and allied group the Electronic Frontier Foundation filed an amicus brief to a relevant court. “Second, the devices can pinpoint a target with extraordinary precision. Some have an accuracy of two meters.”
Almost always mum about the situation, the larger law enforcement community would likely argue that it helps nab unsuspecting criminals and would-be violators of the law.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) originally launched a task force specifically for the purpose of exploring the technology, since the FCC oversees the country’s airwaves. What exactly that unit was able to accomplish is not clear.
“Leaving security to the phone companies has proven to be disastrous and shows yet again why it is critically important to protect strong encryption to safeguard Americans’ private information,” Wyden told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “Despite repeated warnings and clear evidence that our phone networks are being exploited by foreign governments and hackers, FCC Chairman Pai has refused to hold the industry accountable and instead is prioritizing the interests of his wireless carrier friends over the security of Americans’ communications.”
The FCC declined to comment when asked for a statement, but clarified that the aforementioned task force no longer meets on a regular basis.
The Department of Homeland Security did not respond in time of publication.
The article was updated to include statements and responses.
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