Senate votes to require Pentagon to disclose cellphone spying near military facilities

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The Pentagon is shown in this Dec. 5, 2017, file photo.

The Senate passed legislation Monday evening that would require the Pentagon to notify Congress of cellphone spying activity near U.S. military facilities.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) successfully added the amendment to the spending legislation approved by the upper chamber.

{mosads}The provision comes amid fresh concerns over surveillance activity in the nation’s capital after the U.S. government detected evidence of International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI) catchers — sophisticated cellphone spying technology often referred to as “Stingrays” — in the Washington, D.C., region.

The devices work by masquerading as actual cell towers and tricking cellphones to lock onto them, thereby allowing their owners to track cellphone users’ locations or intercept their communications.

The provision passed Monday would require the Pentagon to provide the congressional Armed Services Committees with a “full accounting” of all cell-site simulator activity detected near Defense Department facilities over the last three years.

It would also mandate that the Defense Department report to the committees on actions the department has taken to guard military facilities as well as military personnel and their families from foreign surveillance using these devices. 

In correspondence to Wyden earlier this year, the Department of Homeland Security revealed that it had detected likely IMSI catcher activity in the D.C. region in a study last year, including near sensitive facilities like the White House.

While Homeland Security did not attribute the activity to specific entities or devices, the disclosure bolstered suspicions that foreign governments may be using the devices to spy on officials in the nation’s capital. The technology has historically been used by law enforcement to track suspects in criminal investigations.

“The Department of Homeland Security has already acknowledged fake cell towers were found near the White House and other sensitive facilities in Washington,” Wyden said in a statement. “Our men and women in uniform shouldn’t have to wonder if their calls and texts are being scooped up by foreign spies.”

Wyden called the provision “the absolute least we can do” to protect military members from would-be spies. 

The appropriations legislation easily passed the Senate in a 86-5 vote Monday evening.

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