Arthur J. Villasanta – Fourth Estate Contributor
Washington, DC, United States (4E) – Suspicion is falling on either a U.S. federal government agency or an unfriendly foreign power as the operator of unauthorized cell-site simulators, which are widely called “Stingrays,” discovered in Washington D.C. in 2017. These simulators, which are essentially “fake cell phone tower devices” that can fit into a briefcase, are used to listen in on smartphone conversations.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has confirmed it discovered the unauthorized Stingrays, whose use in the USA is limited to federal and local law enforcement agencies. If U.S. law enforcement agencies are using cellular phone surveillance devices such as those manufactured by Harris Corporation, it only means these devices are being deployed without lawful warrants. Harris manufactures these devices under the brand name StingRay.
In 2015 during the Obama administration, the Department of Justice issued a policy stating that federal authorities can only use cell-site simulators like StingRay with a warrant. This policy, however, was never formalized by law, and seems to have changed under Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Sessions has been widely lampooned for his out-of-touch tough-on-crime stance his critics see as a throwback to the 1990s when the crime rate was much higher than it is today. Sessions has always prided himself as a hard-liner on criminal justice issues. As the U.S. attorney general, he says his new policies are a rejection of the “soft” strategies on crime under the Obama administration. He argues that capital punishment and long sentences deter criminals in opposition to studies that affirm otherwise.
Cell-site simulators work by tricking mobile devices into reflecting signals off of them instead of a cell tower. The device then captures that signal and allows its operators to identify the location of a targeted smartphone. The FBI, IRS, ICE and police departments are known to use Stingrays and the use of these devices has been challenged in court multiple times as invasions of privacy and a violation of the Fourth Amendment.
While confirming the existence of cell-site simulators in Washington, DHS has refused to identify the government agency or the foreign government operating these controversial devices. DHS explained its ignorance by saying it doesn’t have the resources to continuously detect Stingrays.
In a letter to Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), DHS said it had found “anomalous activity” consistent with operational cell-site simulators in the Washington area. DHS came to this conclusion after conducting an operation lasting 90 days. Sen. Wyden sent the DHS a letter in November 2017 requesting information on the use of cell-site simulators by foreign intelligence services in the USA.
The StingRay made by Harris is an IMSI-catcher. It can extract stored data such as International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI) numbers and the Electronic Serial Number (ESN).
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