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Published On: Wed, Apr 4th, 2018

DHS confirms that criminal, ‘foreign actor’ ‘eavesdropping devices’ found in DC, tracking cell phone activity

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has acknowledged that foreign actors and/or criminals are using eavesdropping devices to track cellphone activity in Washington, D.C., according to a letter obtained by The Hill.

In a letter to Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) last Monday, the DHS said they came across unauthorized cell-site simulators in the Washington, D.C., area last year. These devices, also known as “stingrays,” can track a user’s location data through their mobile phones and can intercept cellphone calls and messages.

The National Protection and Programs Directorate (NPPD) has observed anomalous activity in the National Capital Region that appears to be consistent with International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI) catchers,” DHS wrote in response to specific questions Wyden sent them last November.

It said it is also aware of IMSI use outside the Beltway. 

DHS official Christopher Krebs, the top official leading the NPPD, added in a separate letter accompanying his response that such use “of IMSI catchers by malicious actors to track and monitor cellular users is unlawful and threatens the security of communications, resulting in safety, economic and privacy risks.”

DHS said they have not determined the users behind such eavesdropping devices, nor the type of devices being used.

The agency also did not elaborate on how many devices it unearthed, nor where authorities located them.

Photo By Bill Koplitz/FEMA

The eavesdropping devices impersonate a legitimate cell tower that can then trick nearby cellphone users into connecting to them, which then gives away one’s location data as well as their IMSI number.

The use of eavesdropping tools like the IMSI devices pose a threat to national security, the agency told Wyden.

Individuals who have failed to take steps to encrypt their phones could have their communications sent to such eavesdropping simulators.

NPPD agrees that the use of IMSI catchers by foreign governments may threaten U.S. national and economic security,” the agency wrote in response.

DHS said it lacks the ability to track the use of the unauthorized simulators.

“NPPD is not aware of any current DHS technical capability to detect IMSI catchers,” DHS said, pointing to a need for funding to acquire such a capability.
The Associated Press first reported the letter on Tuesday.

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About the Author

- Roxanne "Butter" Bracco began with the Dispatch as Pittsburgh Correspondent, but will be providing reports and insights from Washington DC, Maryland and the surrounding region. Contact Roxie aka "Butter" at [email protected] ATTN: Roxie or Butter Bracco

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