Congress Must Investigate Surveillance Devices Around Capital, D.C. Delegate Tells Oversight Chairman

The StingRay II, a cellular site simulator used for surveillance purposes manufactured by Harris Corporation, of Melbourne, Fla. (U.S. Patent and Trademark Office via AP)

WASHINGTON — D.C.’s delegate to Congress said that lawmakers returning from spring break next week need to probe a report that unauthorized cell-phone site simulators are possibly being used for espionage around the District.

In a March 26 letter from the Department of Homeland Security to Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), the National Protection and Programs Directorate called the “malicious use” of International Mobile Subscriber Identity catchers “a real and growing risk.” Wyden had asked the agency in November if foreign IMSI catchers had been detected around D.C.

DHS said it had detected “anomalous activity in the National Capital Region” stemming from the devices last year, but did not specify who was operating the devices, where around town they were located or how many were detected.

DHS further wrote that the NPPD “believes the use of these devices by malicious actors to track and monitor cellular users would be unlawful and threaten the security of communications, resulting in safety, economic, and privacy risks,” while “NPPD is not aware of any current DHS technical capability to detect” these devices.

After the Associated Press reported on the letter this week, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) told House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) that the panel should investigate who is “infiltrating the cellphone activity in the nation’s capital and perhaps elsewhere.”

“These devices are used to track individual cell phones and can cost as little as $1,000, making them widely accessible,” Norton notes of the StingRays, which essentially impersonate cell phone towers. “Spying of various kinds by foreign powers, as well as by the United States, has always been used in intelligence gathering.”

“However, illegal spying on a broad swath of citizens, by either a foreign body or criminal actors, has always been unacceptable. Moreover, encryption has been a demonstrated way to prevent these devices from hacking into cell phones,” she added. “Congress and the federal government have an obligation at least to warn residents about the risks of eavesdropping and encourage them to adopt encryption measures.”

A hearing “to examine what the government must do to stop unnecessary spying is critical to ensuring that everything possible is being done to protect the privacy rights of American citizens” is “in order,” Norton wrote to Gowdy.