Senators demand info on unusual surveillance activity in DC

Senators demand info on unusual surveillance activity in DC
© Getty Images

A bipartisan group of senators is pushing the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to make public more information about the use of rogue surveillance devices colloquially known as “Stingrays.”

Homeland Security recently acknowledged the devices are being used by hostile actors in Washington, D.C.


The use of those devices by criminals and foreign spies to eavesdrop on cellphone calls and messages in the U.S. has long been suspected, but the department's disclosure was the first official confirmation of their presence.

But it left many questions unanswered, like what kind of devices the DHS had uncovered, who might have been using them and how many it found.

Sens. Cory GardnerCory GardnerOvernight Defense: Joint Chiefs denounce Capitol attack | Contractors halt donations after siege | 'QAnon Shaman' at Capitol is Navy vet Lobbying world Senate swears-in six new lawmakers as 117th Congress convenes MORE (R-Colo.), Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenSenate Democrats file ethics complaint against Hawley, Cruz over Capitol attack With a new president and a new Congress, it's time for Medicare drug price negotiation The Hill's Morning Report - President Biden, Vice President Harris begin work today MORE (D-Ore.), Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulThe Hill's Morning Report - Biden takes office, calls for end to 'uncivil war' Senate confirms Biden's intel chief, giving him first Cabinet official McConnell faces conservative backlash over Trump criticism MORE (R-Ky.) and Ed MarkeyEd MarkeyDemocrats shoot down McConnell's filibuster gambit Biden signs executive order invoking 2-year lobbying ban for appointees Five centrist Democrats oppose Pelosi for Speaker in tight vote MORE (D-Mass.) are calling on the DHS to release an unclassified PowerPoint presentation detailing the threat.

The presentation was given by a DHS official at the Federal Mobile Technology Forum in Mclean, Va., in February, according to the four lawmakers.

They described the presentation as “detailed,” but gave no other details about what it reveals.

“The American people have a legitimate interest in understanding the extent to which U.S. telephone networks are vulnerable to surveillance and are being actively exploited by hostile actors,” they wrote in a letter to DHS official Christopher Krebs.

So-called International Mobile Subscriber Identity-catchers, or IMSI-catchers — known as Stingrays after a popular brand used by U.S. police departments — work by tricking cellphones into locking onto the device instead of a legitimate cellphone tower. Once they are deployed, they can intercept data from a target phone.

Experts say they are widely used by foreign embassies, which are on sovereign soil, and police departments have quietly used them for years to some controversy.

The D.C. Court of Appeals last year ruled that warrantless use of the devices violated the Fourth Amendment when it was used to locate a man suspected of sexual assault and robbery — the fourth such ruling by either a state appeals or federal district court.

Wyden, meanwhile, has been calling on the Federal Communications Commission to do more to hold phone companies accountable to ensure that they safeguard their networks against security threats.

Updated at 2:02 p.m.