Dems sound alarm to FCC about 'incredible' eavesdropping threat

Dems sound alarm to FCC about 'incredible' eavesdropping threat
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Three top House Democrats on Thursday called on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which monitors the nation's airwaves, to crack down on the use of unauthorized eavesdropping devices.

The devices can track a user's location data through their mobile phones as well as intercept cellphone calls and messages.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) recently acknowledged for the first time that foreign actors or other criminals are using unauthorized cell-site simulators, also known as "stingrays," in Washington. The department made the disclosure last week in a letter to Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) that The Hill obtained on Tuesday.

"[I]t appears that these cell-site simulators could be gathering intelligence on unwitting Americans on behalf of foreign governments. If these reports are true, it marks an incredible security vulnerability in the seat of the Federal government,” wrote the three Democrats, who serve as ranking members on three separate congressional committees.

“The FCC, however, has the ability to take action to protect Americans from this type of foreign government surveillance. As the agency in charge of managing the commercial airwaves, the FCC has the statutory power to stop the illicit use of cell-site simulators," they continued.

While DHS in their letter noted that the use of IMSI catchers by foreign governments poses a security risk to the U.S., it said the National Protection and Programs Directorate (NPPD) has not "validated or attributed such activity to specific entities or devices." It remains unclear whether the discovered eavesdropping devices could've also been used by U.S. people to spy on fellow U.S. citizens. 

Rep. Eliot EngelEliot Lance EngelHouse lawmakers delay decision on Saudi Arabia pending investigation GOP-controlled Senate breaks with Trump on Saudi vote Dem lawmaker pledges hearings after CIA briefing on Khashoggi MORE (D-N.Y.) of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Frank Pallone Jr.Frank Joseph PalloneOvernight Health Care — Sponsored by Amgen — Dems to reframe gun violence as public health issue | Court orders key documents from OxyContin maker unsealed | Pfizer announces stock buybacks Dems to reframe gun violence as public health issue Term limit fight highlights growing pains for Pelosi’s majority MORE (D-N.J.) of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and Rep. Bennie ThompsonBennie Gordon ThompsonDems demand probe into death of 7-year-old in DHS custody K Street works to court minority lawmakers Black Caucus huddles as talk of term limits heats up MORE (D-Miss.) of the House Homeland Security Committee all signed onto the letter to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. 

DHS said the use of International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI) catchers poses a threat to national security, in its letter to Wyden, a privacy hawk, who had requested information about the stingrays from the agency in November.

Homeland Security official Christopher Krebs, the top official leading the NPPD, added in a separate letter accompanying his response to Wyden that such use "of IMSI catchers by malicious actors to track and monitor cellular users is unlawful and threatens the security of communications, resulting in safety, economic and privacy risks."

The agency, however, said it lacks the ability to track the use of the unauthorized simulators — a point the lawmakers emphasized in their letter. 

“[N]o action has been taken to date to actually address this problem. With foreign actors now potentially taking advantage of the Commission’s inaction, the FCC should act, consistent with applicable law and regulations, to investigate these allegations and address any unlawful use of cell-site simulators in the Capital and anywhere else they are used in U.S. soil,” they wrote.

"Critical federal agencies including those involved in national defense and intelligence operate in the Washington D.C. area, and these cell-site simulators could be surreptitiously intercepting the sensitive data of federal government employees at these agencies."

An FCC spokesman on Tuesday told The Hill the commission continues to monitor any developments regarding IMSI devices, after The Associated Press first reported on the letter.

Krebs noted in his letter that the FCC in 2011 began signing off on authorized IMSI devices to use U.S. airwaves that met their requirements for controlling radio interference and emissions as the commission does for other devices like cellphones. It does not grant authorizations to use such devices, the FCC spokesman added.

The agency did not elaborate on how many devices it unearthed, where authorities located them, nor have they determined what types they have come across.