Evidence of cell phone spying found near White House

June 1, 2018

A Department of Homeland Security study has detected evidence that controversial surveillance technology—intended to pick up cell phone calls and texts—was in operation near the White House and at other sensitive locations in the nation’s capital last year, The Washington Post reported on June 1. .

The DHS program found the surveillance devices, called IMSI catchers, as part of federal testing last year, according to a letter  from the agency to Intelligence Committee member Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) dated May 22.

The letter did not specify what entity operated the devices and left open the possibility that there could be alternative explanations for the suspicious cellular signals collected by the federal testing program.

The discovery bolsters years of independent research, The Post said, suggesting that foreign intelligence agencies use sophisticated interception technology to spy on officials working within the hub of federal power in the nation’s capital.

Experts in surveillance technology say that IMSI catchers—sometimes known by the popular brand name, StingRay—are gizmos that are used by many foreign intelligence services, including Russia and China.

“This admission from DHS bolsters my concern about stingrays and other spying devices being used to spy on Americans’ phones,” Wyden said in a statement on May 31. “Given the reports of rogue spying devices being identified near the White House and other government facilities, I fear that foreign intelligence services could target the president and other senior officials.”

The DHS letter came in response to a meeting last month in which Wyden pushed for a more aggressive federal response to cellular system insecurity. IMSI catchers are widely used by local, state and federal police, as well as foreign intelligence agencies.

The same May 22 letter revealed that DHS was aware of reports that a global cellular network messaging system, called SS7, was being used to spy on Americans through their cell phones. Such surveillance, which can intercept calls and locate cell phones from anywhere in the world, are sometimes used in conjunction with IMSI catchers.

Wyden’s fears about the White House are based in reality: The president and his aides have used cellphones extensively for communications. While there have been no polls about how the U.S. electorate feels about this unsafe practice, in January, a Morning Consult/Politico poll, of 1,988 registered voters, found that 65% of self-identified Republicans said that the Department of Justice should its investigation into personal cell phone usage for official emails, texts and phone calls.

Hillary Clinton was investigated extensively for her personal cellphone usage while she was Secretary of State. In fact, Trump declared repeatedly during his 2016 presidential campaign that Clinton’s email “negligence”disqualified her to be president.

In January 2016, The Washington Post reported that he said the email scandal was “a disaster for Hillary Clinton. At a minimum, how can someone with such bad judgment be our next president?”

He also released this zinger in July 2016, the Post reported:  “Crooked Hillary Clinton and her team ‘were extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information.’ Not fit!” His refrain continued throughout the summer.

Even after being elected, Trump demanded that the Justice Department look into Clinton’s emails to determine whether she committed a crime. His supporters still chant “Lock her up! Lock her up!”

Research contact: craig.timberg@washpost.com

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