There are countless cell phone towers all around us. Just take a look at any major phone company’s coverage map: Almost every populated area of America is blanketed with towers, which allow us to stay connected while roaming or even driving across the country.
But not every cell tower is there to help us. Spying devices commonly known as “StingRays” can mimic legitimate parts of the network, but track you in alarming ways.
Shockingly, an investigative report from WRC-TV in Washington, D.C., has found dozens of those spy devices around the nation’s capital. And even more troubling is the fact nobody is entirely sure how they got there.
“The technology can be as small as a suitcase, placed anywhere at any time, and it’s used to track cell phones and intercept calls,” explained the news outlet.
The trick is that your phone is always searching for a strong tower. When it finds one, it connects automatically. This happens constantly without the user ever realizing it.
By mimicking or “spoofing” a real cell tower, the StingRays — a brand name for one variant of the device — connect to your phone and gather important data, including its unique identification number.
This means that once a group knows what your phone looks like on the network, a cluster of StingRays can detect when you enter or leave an area. With enough of the spy devices, your location can be tracked with surprising accuracy.
It may also be possible for the devices to listen in on phone calls. By acting as a “man in the middle,” StingRays can intercept your traffic while forwarding calls to their intended destination. You would probably never know something was amiss.
“While you might not be a target yourself, you may live next to someone who is. You could still get caught up,” security expert Aaron Turner told WRC.
With the help of Turner, WRC reporters installed special software that looks for anomalous or “out of place” cell sites. By looking for various telltale signs of a StingRay, the application can provide a pretty good idea about cell spying in an area, although it isn’t perfectly accurate.
“(WRC-TV’s) I-Team’s test phones detected 40 potential locations where the spy devices could be operating, while driving around for just a few hours,” the station explained.
“And the I-Team found them in high-profile areas like outside the Trump International Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue and while driving across the 14th Street bridge into Crystal City. The I-Team got picked up twice while driving along K Street — the corridor popular with lobbyists,” the report continued.
There are clearly legitimate uses of the spy devices for law enforcement. For instance, there are many known cases of police using StingRays to track drug dealers and other wanted criminals. Detecting when a known terrorist enters an area is another obvious use for the technology.
Chillingly, however, law enforcement agencies may not be the only users of the spy units.
“A recent report by the Department of Homeland Security called the spy devices a real and growing risk,” explained WRC-TV.
“DHS has warned rogue devices could prevent connected phones from making 911 calls, saying, ‘If this type of attack occurs during an emergency, it could prevent victims from receiving assistance,'” the report continued.
Whether the devices detected in the D.C. area were placed there by U.S. law enforcement, criminal groups or international agents is not known — at least, not to the public. It’s possible that a mix of those possibilities could be responsible.
One thing is clear: The more we become dependent on complex technology, the easier it is for those advances to be abused or exploited.
Individual privacy and security are still important, and while smartphones have brought amazing convenience, it might not be a bad idea to think twice before blindly trusting phones and networks with our entire lives.
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