New concerns about digital privacy and security are being raised in Washington, as more and more revelations of potential surveillance activity in the D.C. region appears.
Several Officials with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in recent weeks disclosed the existence of sophisticated technology, known as “Stingrays,” near sensitive facilities including the White House.
The International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI) devices are exploiting cell towers in order to intercept cell phone communications.
Until now the technology was only used by U.S. law enforcement officials to track suspects; however, the new revelations contributed to additional fears that foreign intelligence agencies could be using them to spy on U.S. officials.
Democratic Senator Ron Wyden asked for action from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), as well as private phone companies, to invest more in security so Americans can’t be spied on or tracked.
During an interview with The Hill, Wyden also accused FCC Chairman Ajit Pai of “stonewalling” his pleas for action.
“Mr. Pai and the FCC are dragging their feet here,” Wyden said. “They are stonewalling. They are ducking. They are trying to conjure up any possible reason to sit it out.”
The spying technology works by mimicking the function of legitimate cell phone towers which tricks mobile devices to connect to it, which later allows spies to track individuals’ locations or to intercept communications.
The devices are also taking advantage of a vulnerability in the Signaling System Seven (SS7), which is the global telecommunications standard that makes it possible for different phone networks to connect.
“We have a system that was designed in 1975 to work, and security was an afterthought,” said Christopher Meserole, a technology expert at the Brookings Institution.
“The security flaws have been known for a long time,” he said.
Meserole also added that communication firms never really addressed the security flaws because the underlying technology is so useful.
Privacy and civil liberties groups for years have been pushing the government to impose a law that will limit the authority of law enforcement officials who are regularly using this technology.
“This is not a new problem,” said Drew Mitnick, policy counsel at Access Now.
“We see catchers used pretty broadly by state, local and federal law enforcement. There hasn’t yet been the success in establishing the appropriate limits on the use of these devices.”