As a black sedan pulled into downtown Washington traffic earlier this week, a man in the back seat with a specially outfitted smartphone in each hand was watching for signs of surveillance in action. “Whoa, we’ve just been hit twice on this block,” he said, excitement rising in his voice, not far from FBI headquarters.

Then as the car passed the Federal Trade Commission’s limestone edifice, “Okay, we just got probed.” Then again, just a few minutes later, as the car moved between the Supreme Court and the Capitol, he said, “That’s the beginning of an interception.”

The man was Aaron Turner, chief executive of Integricell, a mobile security company. The specially outfitted smartphones, he said, are designed to act like high-tech divining rods that warn users of suspicious mobile activity, potentially indicating surveillance equipment used by police, intelligence agencies and others to track people and snoop on their calls.

Known as IMSI catchers, for the unique identifying phone code called an IMSI, the surveillance devices trick mobile phones into thinking they have logged onto legitimate cell networks, such as Verizon or AT&T, when in fact the signals have been hijacked.

For years, researchers have warned of the growing prevalence of the equipment, and Turner said the spygear is rife throughout the Washington area.

How rife? Turner and his colleagues assert that their specially outfitted smartphone, called the GSMK CryptoPhone, had detected signs of as many as 18 IMSI catchers in less than two days of driving through the region. A map of these locations, released Wednesday afternoon, looks like a primer on the geography of Washington power, with the surveillance devices reportedly near the White House, the Capitol, foreign embassies and the cluster of federal contractors near Dulles International Airport.

“I think there’s even more here,” said Les Goldsmith, chief executive of ESD America, a technology company that is working with Integricell to promote the CryptoPhone. “That was just us driving around for a day and a half.”

Security experts have warned that some of the claims about CryptoPhone may be overblown as the company rides a surge in publicity and business in the aftermath of last year’s revelations by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden. Few doubt the underlying technology, but several in recent days have questioned the ability of CryptoPhone to locate individual IMSI catchers with the precision its marketers claim.

“I would bet money that there are governments that are spying in D.C.,” said Christopher Soghoian, who is principal technologist for the American Civil Liberties Union and has written extensively on the use and abuse of IMSI catchers. “Whether you can detect that with a $3,000 device, I don’t know.”

As Goldsmith acknowledges, if there are indeed IMSI catchers in the locations his company reported on Wednesday, the CryptoPhone cannot easily determine whether they are deployed by the U.S. government, a local police force, a foreign intelligence agency or some other entity.

Experts say the most common users of IMSI catchers are law enforcement agencies, but such surveillance gear has become so affordable and common that many security experts believe that criminals are using them to spy on targets, including perhaps the police themselves. Reasonably skilled hobbyists can build an IMSI catcher, which typically consists of high-tech boxes with radio antennas, for less than $1,500. Goldsmith’s company also sells IMSI catchers to government agencies outside the United States.

 

Originally posted at: Washington Post