This sounds like a screenplay for an action-adventure spy movie, but it's reality. In late August, Popular Science published some stunning news about rogue, fake cellular towers that have been popping up across America. Rather than sending out cellular messages, these cell towers seem to be intercepting and pulling data from phones. These strange towers were publicly revealed by Les Goldsmith, the CEO of ESD America. His company creates technology for defense contractors and law enforcement agencies, such as the CryptoPhone 500, a pricey yet highly secure cellphone.
In an effort to demonstrate just how secure the CryptoPhone 500 is, Goldsmith and his customers created a map of strange data activity they discovered. About 17 cellphone tower locations across the United States have been identified by CryptoPhone users driving by in July. These interceptors have the potential to pull confidential data from smartphones or even install malware without your knowledge. Many of these interceptors were discovered by CryptoPhone users on road trips. Goldsmith himself frequently drives by an interceptor location in Nevada to conduct data and security tests.
So what marks these cell towers as different and suspicious? Well unlike traditional cell towers, these base stations are unnamed, making it impossible to figure out who this interceptor technology belongs to. Additionally, device connections get spotty when interceptors are in the vicinity. According to tests conducted by Goldsmith in Nevada, a Samsung Galaxy S4 in his control group of devices fluctuated from 4G to 3G when he drove past the interceptor.
The Federal Communications Commission has actually assembled a taskforce to investigate the use of interception devices known as IMSI catchers. IMSI stands for "International Mobile Subscriber Identity" and these devices have the potential to let hackers snoop on your cellular conversations and data use. Apparently, this technology isn't too expensive to acquire – it can cost just $1,800 to build one of these surveillance devices. The FCC's investigation is focused on illegal IMSI use by gangs and foreign spies. Hopefully their investigations will also lead to the truth about these strange cellular tower interceptors.
Are you starting to feel a little paranoid now? The Harris Corporation developed one of the most popular IMSI Catchers, known as the "StingRay," which as been used by law enforcement agencies since 2006 during anti-terrorism operations for several years. However, there have been allegations that police departments are overstepping privacy rights and usage boundaries, and using StingRays to spy on people during other cases. According to the California-based First Amendment Coalition, StingRays might have been used to spy on people during dozens of investigations that had nothing to do with terrorism.
So far, no one knows where the cell interceptors have come from and who's spying on whom. Many organizations stand to benefit from interceptor use, including governments, law enforcement, and gangs. ESD America's map of interceptor locations reveals that our personal cellular data and conversations just aren't safe on most consumer phone models.