FCC wants to protect citizens from Stingray-style cell phone trackers

Photo from Thinkstock/Tomasz Wyszoamirski

Devices known as Stingrays, which can secretly track and record phone users by mimicking cell phone towers, have been a hot topic in law enforcement and civil liberties circles for some time. Now, the FCC is set to take a closer look at who is using them.

In a letter reported Monday by the Washington Post, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler stated that the agency would create a task force to examine the threats posed by Stingrays, which is the trade name for a technology known as “ISMI catchers.”

The devices, which are manufactured by Florida-based Harris Corporation, work by tricking nearby cell phones into thinking they are part of the relay tower system that makes up a cell phone network. Here is a picture of a Stingray from the Wall Street Journal, which has been among the first news outlets to call attention to the technology:

StingRay

The Stingray makes it possible to track the location of a cell phone user and, as Ars Technica reported, Harris Corporation also offers add-on technologies in the form of software known as “Fishhawk” and “Porpoise” that lets the Stingray operator listen to phone calls or capture text messages.

Wheeler’s decision to create the task force appears to have been prompted by a letter from Rep. Alan D. Grayson (D-Fla), who expressed concern that foreign governments and criminal gangs can use the tools to spy on Americans. Wheeler stated that the task force’s mission is to “protect the cellular network systemically from similar unlawful intrusions and interceptions.”

While Grayson’s letter to the FCC highlighted potential foreign threats, the use of Stingray technology by domestic law enforcement is also a growing source of concern. The ACLU and others have called attention to how the U.S. Marshall’s Service has been lending Stingray technology to local law enforcement troops, who in turn have been concealing from judges the use of the technology.

In his letter, Wheeler states that the FCC has the mandate to protect the national communications infrastructure, and that he will work with wireless carriers to ensure their networks are using up-to-date cryptographic standards — a measure that could make it harder to use Stingrays to capture cell phone information.

Here’s the pair of letters, which includes Grayson’s questions to the FCC, and Wheeler’s response:

Grayson – Wheeler Letter

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