Fake Mobile Towers Spy On UK Phone Users

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British mobile users revealed to be under survelliance from police and other forces using fake mobile phone towers

Mobile phone users in the United Kingdom are being actively tracked by the police and other organisations after an investigation revealed the widespread prevalence of monitoring stations disguised as phone masts.

The fake towers routinely gather data from any passing mobile phone, which allows authorities to track suspects or members of the public.

IMSI Catchers

The discovery was made after an investigation by Sky News, which used software made by GMSK Cryptophone, a German security company, to look for the tell-tale signs of any IMSI catchers (also known as Stingrays).

Over a three week period, Sky News discovered more than 20 instances in London alone.

smart meterA Stingray is an IMSI catcher, which is a powerful and highly portable surveillance tool from an American company called Harris Corporation. The small box essentially mimics a mobile cell mast and tricks any passing phones into logging on.

Because it pretends to be a legitimate cell tower, it gathers the international mobile subscriber number (IMSI) and electronic serial number (ESN) of every mobile phone in range (thought to be at least 10 square kilometres) of the fake tower.

This allows the police and others to track the exact location of the mobile phone user. The Metropolitan Police Service has reportedly refused to confirm or deny it was using them, despite freedom of information requests.

A document containing the evidence gathered by Sky News can be found here.

“We’re not going to talk about it, because the only people who benefit are the other side, and I see no reason in giving away that sort of thing,” said Bernard Hogan-Howe, the Met commissioner and the UK’s most senior police officer, speaking to Sky News.

“If people imagine that we’ve got the resources to do as much intrusion as they worry about, I would reassure them that it’s impossible.”

“Some of what we would like to talk about to get the debate informed and logical, we can’t, because it would defeat the purpose of having the tactics in the first place,” Keith Bristow, the director-general of the National Crime Agency told Sky News.

“Frankly, some of what we need to do is intrusive, it is uncomfortable, and the important thing is we set that out openly and recognise there are difficult choices to be made,” Bristow reportedly said.

No Comment, Again

The refusal by the Police to confirm or deny the use of this technology is nothing new.

Image courtsey of Privacy International
Image courtsey of Privacy International

Back in October 2011, the Met spoke to TechweekEurope directly and would not confirm whether it specifically has the technology, because of its covert nature.

The Met had acquired IMSI catcher technology in 2011 from a Leeds-based company called Datong plc, whose customers include the MoD and the US Secret Service. Privacy International (PI) told TechweekEurope back in 2011 that the police had been using IMSI catchers since 2006.

“In reality the police in the UK have been using these IMSI catchers for the last five years now at least,” Eric King, the human rights and technology advisor at Privacy International, told TechweekEurope at the time. “What has changed is that these image catchers have become smaller and cheaper, and we are unclear on the legal justification for using them, as they do a lot more than location finding.”

And King also commented on the more recent Sky News investigation.

“With IMSI catchers, it’s very difficult for them to be used in a targeted manner,” Eric King, deputy director of Privacy International, told Sky News. “In an urban space, thousands of people’s mobile phones would be swept up in that dragnet. What they do with that data, we don’t know.

“We know police have been using them for years, but this is the first time that it’s been shown that they’re being deployed in the UK,” King reportedly said.

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Author: Tom Jowitt
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