The US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has acknowledged for the first time that unauthorized spying devices are being used in Washington, DC.
According to a letter obtained by The Hill, the department admitted that foreign actors or criminals are using eavesdropping devices to track cellphone activity in Washington.
The letter DHS wrote to Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) last Monday shows that they came across unauthorized cell-site simulators in the area last year.
The devices known as “stingrays” can track a user’s location data using their mobile phones and can intercept cellphone calls and messages.
“[T]he National Protection and Programs Directorate (NPPD) has observed anomalous activity in the National Capital Region that appears to be consistent with International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI) catchers,” DHS wrote responding to specific questions Wyden sent them last November.
It said that it has knowledge of IMSI use outside the Beltway.
DHS official Christopher Krebs, the top official leading the NPPD, said in a separate letter that such use “of IMSI catchers by malicious actors to track and monitor cellular users is unlawful and threatens the security of communications, resulting in safety, economic and privacy risks.”
DHS, however, did not elaborate on the users of such devices, nor the type of devices they might use.
The department also did not provide any information about how many devices it unearthed or where they were spotted.
The eavesdropping devices function like a legitimate cell tower that can deceive nearby cellphone users into connecting to them, thereby giving away one’s location data as well as their IMSI number.
Using such eavesdropping tools poses a threat to national security, the agency told Wyden, a privacy hawk.
“NPPD agrees that the use of IMSI catchers by foreign governments may threaten US national and economic security,” the agency wrote in response.
The US intelligence community and others involved with the national security apparatus, including the CIA, FBI and National Security Agency, are based in Washington, DC.