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The Department of Homeland Security found evidence of suspicious cell phone surveillance devices operating close to the White House and at government buildings around Washington D.C. last year, it has reported.
The discovery came as part of federal testing last year and the department notified Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) of its findings on May 22. While the devices are used commonly by U.S. law enforcement, the department could not identify who was operating the devices.
The technology, known as an IMSI catcher or Stingray, can mimic a cell tower and intercept signals that will allow its operator to spy on calls or messages and GPS location. Although the technologies require the target phones to be within range, some IMSI devices can even install software on target devices to enable future tracking.
Wyden ventured the notion that they may be the toolkit of foreign operatives to spy on officials and lawmakers in the nation’s government centre.
“This admission from DHS bolsters my concern about stingrays and other spying devices being used to spy on Americans’ phones,” the senator said in a statement on Thursday. “Given the reports of rogue spying devices being identified near the White House and other government facilities, I fear that foreign intelligence services could target the president and other senior officials.”
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The federal investigation backs other research undertaken independently. The Washington Post reports that Nevada-based intelligence contractor ESD America had also detected IMSI catchers in the capital when working for private clients in the area. The firm was able to confirm that the technology was discovered outside the intelligence service headquarters, the White House, Senate buildings, and major embassies.
“We continue to monitor reports of the use of IMSI devices and to coordinate closely with our counterparts at DHS, DOJ, and the FBI,” a Federal Communications Commission spokesperson said in response. “The FCC strenuously enforces its rules against the unauthorized use of licensed radio spectrum and harmful interference with licensed users of the airwaves.”
For civil liberties groups, however, the news comes as another example of how this powerful surveillance technology is being abused. Privacy activists have long warned against the lack of regulation and the threat that the devices pose to national security.
“This is a huge concern from a national security perspective,” Laura Moy, deputy director of Georgetown Law’s Center, told the Post. “People have been warning for years that these devices were used by foreign agents operating on American soil.”
David Gilmour is a reporter who specializes in national politics, internet culture, and technology. He previously covered civil liberties, crime, and politics for Vice.