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US Suspects Listening Devices in Washington


05 April, 2018

The United States has acknowledged that it suspects that cellphone spying devices exist in Washington. It says the devices could be permitting foreign spies and criminals to follow an individual's movements, secretly listen to calls, and read text messages.

The devices are called cellphone-site simulators. American intelligence and law enforcement agencies use the equipment themselves. However, they have been quiet about the issue of such equipment being used against the U.S.

Ron Wyden is a Democratic Party lawmaker from Oregon. Last year he requested information about simulators in a letter to the Department of Homeland Security. Last week, the DHS answered Senator Wyden by letter. It said the DHS had identified suspected illegal cellphone-site simulators in the nation's capital. The letter said the agency did not know the kind of devices in use or who might have been operating them. It did not give more details.

This undated file photo provided by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office shows the StingRay II (U.S. Patent and Trademark Office via AP, File)
This undated file photo provided by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office shows the StingRay II (U.S. Patent and Trademark Office via AP, File)

The Associated Press got the agency's answer from Wyden's office. It suggests little has been done about such equipment, called Stingrays by U.S. police departments. The Federal Communications Commission formed a committee to deal with the subject four years ago. However, it has never produced a report and no longer meets on a usual basis.

Stingrays trick cellphones into connecting through them instead of through legal cell systems. Other devices force cellphones to connect through lower level technology that does not prevent access by others. Some of these devices can attach malware to a system.

The devices can cost from $1,000 to about $200,000. They are commonly the size of a briefcase, but some are as small as a cellphone.

Thousands of members of the military, intelligence and federal law enforcement services live and work in the Washington area. Many have special security measures on their cell phones. But average citizens could become victims of stingray users.

DHS official Christopher Krebs signed the letter to Wyden. It said that the agency had seen "anomalous activity" possibly from Stingrays in the Washington area.

A DHS official added that the devices were found in a 90-day trial that began in January 2017 with equipment from a Las Vegas-based DHS contractor, ESD America.

Krebs is the top official in the department's National Protection and Programs Directorate. He wrote that the agency lacks the equipment and money to detect Stingrays. And he called the use of such devices against the U.S., "a real and growing risk."

Legislators have been worried about the use of Stingrays in the capital since at least 2014 when suspected illegal devices were found near the White House, the Supreme Court, the Commerce Department and the Pentagon.

Wyden said in a statement Tuesday that "leaving security to the phone companies has proven to be disastrous." He added that the FCC has refused to force phone companies to act.

After the 2014 news reports about Stingrays in Washington, Representative Alan Grayson of Florida wrote to the FCC about the report. Then-FCC chairman Tom Wheeler answered that the agency had created a committee to fight illegal use of the devices.

That committee appears to have done little. A former adviser to Wheeler, Gigi Sohn, said there was no political desire to stop Stingrays because the intelligence agencies and local police forces were using them so often.

"The FCC is not doing its job," said Laura Moy of the Center on Privacy and Technology at Georgetown University. The agency, she said, should be enforcing its rules and demanding companies protect their network.

FCC spokesman Neil Grace, however, said the agency does not have that power.

I'm Susan Shand.

Susan Shand adapted this Associated Press story for VOA Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor.

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Words in This Story

acknowledge --v. to admit, to say

simulator – n. an object that gives a false location for a cellphone

malware n. Software that harms a computer

briefcase - n. a flat, rectangular container, typically made of leather, for carrying books and papers.

countermeasure- n. an action or device that is intended to stop or prevent something bad or dangerous

anomalous adj. not expected or usual

detect - v. to notice or to find

anonymous adj. not named or identified

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