Phantom Towers in D.C. May Be an Espionage Tool


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Foreign entities may be surveilling U.S. cell phone calls in the nation’s capital; the U.S. Department of Homeland Security says it’s detected fake cell towers — called International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI catchers) — in Washington, D.C. It could be the first time the federal government has acknowledged publicly the devices are in the area, reports the Associated Press.

The devices mimic real cell towers in order to collect metadata and potentially communication data from calls and texts. Some devices can force phones to downgrade to a 2G network to make such interception easier, reports the Register. Phones using 3G or 4G networks can authenticate towers.

Police officers and the federal government have used the devices, but concern is growing they may be used by foreign spies. A Department of Homeland Security official told Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) about the issue in a memo released last week. But DHS needs more money to actually track down the IMSI device locations, reports NPR. Wyden asked DHS whether it had evidence of foreign IMSI catchers operating in the D.C. area in November.  

The Washington Post published a map that purportedly shows locations detected by a CryptoPhone, which provides security against eavesdropping and electronic surveillance by using algorithms to encrypt the phone signals. The CryptoPhone measures three potential indicators of an IMSI in action. It notes when the phone shifts from a secure 3G network to a less-secure 2G network and detects when a phone connection removes encryption. “And the third reports when a cell tower fails to make available a list of other cell towers in the area; this is called a “neighbor’s list,” and it allows phones to easily switch between nearby towers,” reports the Post.

Now, Wyden, joined by Reps. Frank Pallone (D-NJ) and Eliot Engel (D-NY) want the FCC to investigate. “With foreign actors now potentially taking advantage of the Commission’s inaction, the FCC should act, consistent with applicable law and regulations, to investigate these allegations and address any unlawful use of cell-site simulators in the Capital and anywhere else they are used in U.S. soil,” they write.

The Commission formed a task force to handle the issue in 2014; the group was tasked with cracking down on unauthorized use of tower simulators. But it no longer meets regularly, reports the AP. An agency spokeswoman told Politico they’re reviewing the letter.

April 9, 2018                           

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