DHS declined to let officials testify at hearing on cell surveillance, chairman says

DHS declined to let officials testify at hearing on cell surveillance, chairman says
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The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) declined to provide a witness to testify at a public hearing on cellphone spying technology Wednesday, according to a U.S. congressman, drawing criticism from lawmakers.

Instead, the department briefed lawmakers behind closed doors on the cellular surveillance devices, which Rep. Ralph Abraham (R-La.) described as “helpful,” though he criticized Homeland Security for not appearing publicly to discuss the threat. 

“It would have been substantially more helpful for DHS to have been present today to be part of the dialogue, inform the American public, and answer questions about their work in this area,” Abraham said.

Abraham chairs the House Science Committee’s subcommittee on oversight, which held a hearing to examine privacy and security threats posed by what are called International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI) catchers on Wednesday. 

The devices, often referred to as “Stingrays,” work by mimicking legitimate cell towers and tricking mobile devices to connect to them – allowing users to suck up location data and other information from mobile phones.

The technology has long been used by law enforcement to track suspects in investigations, and there are also widespread suspicions that foreign governments use them to spy on U.S. officials.

Earlier this year, DHS acknowledged in correspondence with a U.S. senator that it had detected likely IMSI catcher activity in the Washington, D.C., region, including near sensitive facilities like the White House, in a limited study conducted last year.

At Wednesday’s hearing, lawmakers sought to address both privacy and national security concerns raised by the use of these devices in the United States.

“Regrettably, although they were invited, the Department of Homeland Security, DHS, declined to provide a witness today and instead provided a briefing to members and staff last week. While this was helpful in giving some context to the matter, it was no substitute for a public discussion on such a serious issue,” Abraham said at the outset of the hearing.

Abraham did not expand on the details of that briefing. A DHS official later confirmed to The Hill in a statement that it had occurred. 

“Last week, DHS met with the subcommittee Chairman and Ranking Member to discuss a pilot program involving IMSI catchers," the official said. "During the briefing, DHS explained that NPPD does not have law enforcement or counterintelligence authorities to address these specific concerns with IMSI catcher technology, and referred testimony to the lead agencies.”

Rep. Eddie Bernice JohnsonEddie Bernice JohnsonDHS declined to let officials testify at hearing on cell surveillance, chairman says EPA says it abandoned plan for office in Pruitt’s hometown House Dems launch '18 anti-poverty tour MORE (D-Texas), the top Democrat on the Science Committee, echoed him, calling it “unfortunate” that neither Homeland Security nor FBI sent officials to testify publicly. Johnson said the revelation of potential surveillance activity near sensitive facilities was the genesis for Wednesday’s meeting. 

“It is clear that foreign intelligence agencies are seeking to use cell-site simulators to collect intelligence on federal officials,” she said. What are we doing as a government to counter this particular threat?”

Instead, the committee heard from academic experts and an official at the Commerce Department’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) about how the technology works, what devices are particularly vulnerable, and how they can be used for malign purposes.

Homeland Security has offered little public information on the issue. In the May letter to Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenHouse passes measure blocking IRS from revoking churches' tax-exempt status over political activity Senators introduce bipartisan bill to improve IRS Senate panel advances Trump IRS nominee MORE (D-Ore.) acknowledging the apparent IMSI catcher activity, the department said it had not attributed the activity to specific entities or devices. The department further said that law enforcement and intelligence agencies had subsequently determined that some of the signals were emanating from “legitimate cell towers.”

Some lawmakers in the Senate have pressed Homeland Security to publicly release an unclassified PowerPoint presentation on the activity, though the department has declined to do so, saying it is for official use only.

Updated: 5:57 p.m.