01:21 GMT21 September 2020
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    Four US Senators are urging the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to disclose additional information on “anomalous [surveillance] activity” in Washington, DC, suspected to be from Stingray devices operated by foreign actors.

    Democratic senators Ron Wyden (OR) and Ed Markey (MA) joined Republican senators Rand Paul (KY) and Cory Gardner (CO) in writing a letter urging the Trump administration to give the public more information on the suspected rogue spying devices. The activity was confirmed by DHS in a March 26 letter to Wyden.

    The DHS letter confirmed "anomalous activity" that "appears to be consistent" with Stingrays, and an anonymous DHS employee confirmed to AP that the department actually did detect Stingrays during a 90-day trial beginning in January 2017, in which it swept through DC with the security firm ESD America. 

    Stingrays, or IMSI catchers, function as a dragnet: instead of intercepting communications from a single cell phone user, IMSI catchers send a signal out to every phone within their reach. Basically, the device convinces phones that they will get a better connection through its signal, and when the phones take the bait, the device sucks in all the information originally meant to be delivered to the nearest cell tower.

    It isn't clear who is running the Stingrays in DC if not the US government, although "criminals" and unnamed foreign governments have been the primary suspects fingered by Congress members and ESD America. ESD America in 2014 detected 18 Stingray devices in the DC area; their latest sweep of the city was done in partnership with DHS.

    The Stingrays found in 2014 were near the Capitol building, where Congress legislates, and the White House, among other fountainheads of American governance. But it is not just those striding the halls of power who are vulnerable to surveillance, due to the indiscriminate nature of IMSI data interceptions.

    "The American people have a legitimate interest in understanding the extent to which US telephone networks are vulnerable to surveillance and are being actively exploited by hostile actors," the senators' letter to DHS states.

    IMSI catchers are already affecting Americans telecommunications, but the senators are specifically looking at those deployed by people deemed "hostile actors." Stingrays are used by 13 US federal agencies and by police departments in at least half of US states, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. They could be even more prevalent, but it is difficult to determine because the manufacturer, Harris Corporation, forces its clients to sign nondisclosure agreements.

    The letter also alluded that DHS had briefed federal agencies on their findings, but has so far not made that information public.

    This month, three House Democrats urged Federal Communications Commission Chair Ajit Pai to take action against foreign governments "surveilling Americans in the nation's capital," according to Reuters.

    FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel on Tuesday warned at a commission meeting that some of the devices "may even have the technical capability to record the content of calls." 

    Sputnik spoke with Freddie Martinez, executive director of the Lucy Parsons Lab, following the anonymous revelations of IMSI detection. The group spearheaded a movement to get the Chicago Police Department to detail its use of the tech, among other things.

    The "Department of Homeland Security, the FBI and CIA are maybe not experts on, like, risks to Americans' privacy," Martinez told Sputnik, cautioning that the US government uses the same technology, often for clandestine activities. "We should have the same concerns regardless of whether it's an American telecom or a foreign [one]… the amount of just metadata your phones generate should concern you anyway, regardless of this latest DHS finding," Martinez said.

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    Tags:
    spying, surveillance, stingray, Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Washington DC
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