Are Foreign Spies Using Cellphones to Eavesdrop on Washington?

Are spies and criminals working for foreign governments and independent interests using special tracking devices to penetrate the private realm of our nation’s political class? That’s the bombshell revelation in a new piece of communication from the Department of Homeland Security, as reported by the Associated Press this week. Responding to a letter of inquiry from Sen. Ron Wyden, DHS officials confirmed that it had “identified suspected unauthorized cell-site simulators in the nation’s capital.” The agency had no answers, however, about how many of these devices may be in use or who the shadowy figures were behind them.

Perhaps more disturbingly, from the letter, there is little indication that Homeland Security has done much of anything to respond to what is a clear and present danger to our national secrets.

The devices are known colloquially as Stingrays, though the ones in use in Washington may not necessarily be of that particular brand. The FCC has been looking into the devices for nearly four years, but nothing has yet come of the task force they set up. Which is example #12,456 that when D.C. sets up a “task force,” it’s the clearest indication you could ever ask for that absolutely nothing of merit is going to happen on the issue.

“The devices work by tricking mobile devices into locking onto them instead of legitimate cell towers, revealing the exact location of a particular cellphone,” reports the Associated Press. “More sophisticated versions can eavesdrop on calls by forcing phones to step down to older, unencrypted 2G wireless technology. Some attempt to plant malware.”

It feels like at least some of the danger, then, can be mitigated simply by requiring lawmakers and staffers in Washington to carry phones that do not permit this forced downgrade to 2G technology, but we’re not certain that phones are equipped with this sort of security system. It seems like a no-brainer – especially if this threat is four years old and counting – but it could be the kind of security block that isn’t possible, depending on how exactly these spying devices work.

Regardless, this needs to be a wake-up call to anyone who works with sensitive material or holds sensitive conversations over their phones. Departments need to be really strict when it comes to protocol and make sure that employees and lawmakers understand that their cellphones are NOT secure. Just assume at all times that a hostile entity could be listening. Because if Homeland Security has the lay of it, they very well might be.

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