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Officials disclose potential cellphone surveillance activity near White House

Officials disclose potential cellphone surveillance activity near White House
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Officials with the Department of Homeland Security detected potential surveillance activity near “sensitive facilities” in Washington, including the White House, according to a study conducted last year.

Officials disclosed the activity, associated with devices commonly known as “Stingrays,” in a letter to Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenSenators call for passage of bill to cement alcohol excise tax relief The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Mastercard - GOP angst in Georgia; confirmation fight looms Alcohol industry ramps up pressure on Congress for tax relief MORE (D-Ore.), which was first reported by The Washington Post this week. 

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The revelation boosts long-held suspicions that foreign actors are using the technology to conduct spying in the nation’s capital.

Christopher Krebs, the acting head of the National Protection and Programs Directorate (NPPD), Homeland Security’s cybersecurity unit, explained in the May 22 letter that the department initiated a “limited pilot project” in the D.C. region last year to understand the activity of “Stingray” devices — formally known as international mobile subscriber identity (IMSI) catcher technology.

An IMSI is a unique identification number that is used to recognize any one mobile device on a cellular network. IMSI catcher technology mimics legitimate cellphone towers in order to intercept cellular communications, allowing for eavesdropping.

The tracking devices are often referred to as “stingrays” after the StingRay brand widely used by state and local police officers. 

In the letter, Krebs acknowledged that Homeland Security observed “anomalous activity that appeared consistent with IMSI catcher technology within the [U.S. Capitol Region], including locations in proximity to potentially sensitive facilities like the White House” when conducting the analysis between January and November of last year.

However, the official noted that NPPD “has neither validated nor attributed such activity to specific entities, devices, or purposes.” 

“It is my understanding that relevant law enforcement and counterintelligence agencies conducted further investigation and determined some detected signals were emanating from legitimate cell towers,” Krebs wrote. 

The new detail comes after Homeland Security acknowledged in an earlier letter to Wyden that officials had observed likely IMSI catcher technology activity in the D.C. region. It represents the first instance of U.S. officials acknowledging such activity near the White House.

Wyden and others have clamored for more information from Homeland Security on the possible surveillance activity. Sens. Cory GardnerCory GardnerMark Kelly to be sworn in as senator on Wednesday Hillicon Valley: Trump fires top federal cybersecurity official, GOP senators push back | Apple to pay 3 million to resolve fight over batteries | Los Angeles Police ban use of third-party facial recognition software Senate passes bill to secure internet-connected devices against cyber vulnerabilities MORE (R-Colo.), Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulRand Paul says Fauci owes parents and students an apology over pandemic measures Grassley returns to Capitol after having coronavirus Congress set for chaotic year-end sprint MORE (R-Ky.), and Ed MarkeyEd MarkeyManchin: Ocasio-Cortez 'more active on Twitter than anything else' US national security policy in the 117th Congress and a new administration OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Biden eyes new leadership at troubled public lands agency | House progressives tout their growing numbers in the chamber at climate rally | Trump administration pushes for rollback of Arctic offshore drilling regulations MORE (D-Mass.) joined Wyden in calling for the department to release an unclassified PowerPoint presentation on the activity in April.

Krebs indicated in his latest letter that the department would not do so, describing the presentation as for official use only and therefore “not appropriate” for public release.

Separately, Krebs also acknowledged that the department has received reports of “nefarious actors” possibly exploiting security flaws in Signaling System Seven (SS7), an international system that connects mobile phone networks, in order to “target the communications of American citizens.” He did not expand further on those reports. 

In a statement Friday, Wyden called on the Federal Communications Commission and telephone companies to do more to protect Americans’ communications. He accused the Trump administration and private phone companies of doing a “terrible job” of protecting Americans from being surveilled or tracked. 

--Updated at 1:12 p.m.