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  • Op-ed published in The Hill

Are the Chinese and Russians Listening to Your Phone Calls?

The following op-ed by CFJ telecommunications fellow Julian Gehman was published in The Hill. It was also featured in The Drudge Report.

While the press is abuzz with stories of Chinese technology theft and Russian hacking, there is a hole that has gotten too little attention. “When Trump phones friends, the Chinese and the Russians listen and learn,” the New York Times reported, exposing a huge lapse of national security. In fact, those nations are listening in on cell phone calls across the country through cell site simulators, often known as stingrays, dirtboxes, and international mobile subscriber identity catchers that mimic towers to trick cell phones into transmitting information. They are commonly used to identify the location of a cell phone in order to track the owner. They can also be used to eavesdrop on conversations and intercept texts.

The Homeland Security Department last year found “anomalous activity” consistent with use of cell site simulators near the White House and other sensitive buildings. Driving tests suggest that cell site simulators are positioned near the buildings of federal agencies and high technology defense contractors. Foreign intelligence services are presumed to be responsible. Yet the Homeland Security Department said it does not have the technical expertise or resources to find these cell site simulators.

Cell site simulators also raise Fourth Amendment concerns because law enforcement agencies use them domestically. Historically, these agencies have concealed their use of cell site simulators, claiming they did not require a warrant. In 2015, the Justice Department and Homeland Security Department changed their policies to require that a search warrant be obtained first, making it consistent with recent Supreme Court rulings establishing Fourth Amendment rights for certain cell phone data. Many state and local law enforcement agencies unfortunately continue to rely on a relevance standard that is considerably lower than the probable cause needed for a search warrant and falls short of the Supreme Court precedent, according to a House committee report...


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