For the first time, the US government has publicly acknowledged the existence in Washington of what appear to be rogue devices that foreign spies and criminals could be using to track individual cellphones and intercept calls and messages. The use of what are known as cell-site simulators by foreign powers has long been a concern, but American intelligence and law enforcement agencies—which use such eavesdropping equipment themselves—have been silent on the issue until now. In a March 26 letter to Sen. Ron Wyden, the Department of Homeland Security acknowledged that last year it identified suspected devices, the AP reports. The agency said it hadn't determined the type of devices in use or who might have been operating them. Nor did it say how many it detected or where.
The devices, known popularly as Stingrays after a brand common among US police departments, work by tricking mobile devices into locking onto them instead of legitimate cell towers, revealing the exact location of a particular cellphone. More sophisticated versions can eavesdrop on calls by forcing phones to step down to older, unencrypted 2G wireless technology. Aaron Turner, president of the mobile security consultancy IntegriCell, says Washington, like other world capitals, is awash in unauthorized interception devices. Every embassy "worth their salt" has a cell tower simulator installed, Turner says. They use them "to track interesting people that come toward their embassies," and the Russians' equipment is so powerful it can track targets a mile away, he says.