Stingray cell phone surveillance devices may interfere with 911 calls, senator says

A senator has confirmed that the use of cell site simulators for conducting real-time surveillance on cell phones may interfere with 911 calls.

In a letter to the attorney general, Sen. Ron Wyden said that devices, widely known as “stingrays,” can jam cell phones from sending or receiving phone calls and text messages, which may limit a phone from contacting the emergency services. Wyden said officials at Harris, which develops the surveillance device, told his office that a feature designed to prevent interference with 911 calls was neither tested nor confirmed to work.

Wyden said that not only do stingrays disrupt the communications of a targeted cell phone, other people’s devices nearby might also “experience a temporary disruption of service.”

Stingrays are controversial bits of tech — largely in part because almost nobody outside law enforcement has seen one or knows exactly how they work. These devices are held as a closely guarded secret by police and federal agencies who are bound by non-disclosure agreements — so much so that prosecutors have dropped court cases that might reveal confidential information about the devices.

What we do know is that police across the US use these suitcase-sized devices to mimic cell towers, which trick nearby cell phones into connecting to the device. Police can then identify someone’s real-time location and log all the phones within its range.

Some advanced devices are believed to be able to intercept calls and text messages.

Busting through the secrecy has become a challenge for hobbyists and hackers alike. As far back as 2015, researchers were building low-cost alternatives to cell site simulators as proof of concepts. Nowadays, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, cell site simulators are “easy to acquire or build, with homemade devices costing less than $1,000 in parts.”

That’s going to become a problem for regulators and the authorities — if it’s not already a nationals security problem. Although cell site simulators are only available for purchase to law enforcement, Homeland Security recently warned that foreign spies have also obtained the technology — and are using the devices in the nation’s capital.

The EFF said that the “only way to stop the public safety and public privacy threats that cell-site simulators pose is to increase the security of our mobile communications infrastructure at every layer.”

“All companies involved in mobile communications from the network layer [cell carriers] to the hardware layer (chip and networking device makers], to the software layer [tech giants] need to work together to ensure that our cellular infrastructure is safe, secure, and private from attacks by spies, criminals, and rogue law enforcement,” said the rights group.