December 10, 2015 | By Dia Kayyali

Government, Can You Hear Me Now? Cell-site Simulators Aren’t Secret Anymore

Digital analyzer. IMSI catcher. Stingray. Triggerfish. Dirt box. Cell-site simulator. The list of aliases used by the devices that masquerade as a cell phone tower, trick your phone into connecting with them, and suck up your data, seems to grow every day. But no matter what name cell-site simulators go by, whether they are in the hands of the government or malicious thieves, there’s no question that they’re a serious threat to privacy

That’s why EFF is launching the cell-site simulator section of Street Level Surveillance today. 

Even though the government has been secretively using some version of cell-site simulators since at least 1995, in the last several years, these powerful and disturbing devices have sprung in to public consciousness. The public concern around cell-site simulators is a testament to the importance of intrepid journalists—it’s thanks to a flurry of public records act requests by the ACLU and news organizations across the US, as well as investigations on the use and sale of cell-site simulators around the world, that we’ve even learned how much we don’t know.

But recently, community members and lawmakers are starting to question law enforcement and intelligence agencies about their use of these devices. The Subcommittee on Information Technology of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform held a hearing on “Examining Law Enforcement Use of Tracking Devices,” in October of 2015. The chair of that committee introduced legislation shortly after the hearing to limit the use of cell-site simulators.

Earlier this year, the Department of Justice announced that it would start requiring warrants for cell-site simulators. The Department of Homeland Security followed suit a month later.

In addition, dozens of states have passed or are considering legislation that regulates law enforcement use of cell-site simulators. And at the very local level, places like Alameda County, CA, and Santa Clara County, CA, are realizing that they don’t want powerful cell-site simulator technology in the hands of law enforcement without knowing how it will be used.

That’s why we’re excited to launch our cell-site simulator page on Street Level Surveillance. Our “frequently asked questions” bring together a vast array of resources, from academic papers to news articles to security research, in order to provide comprehensive information about cell-site simulators. And our cell-site simulator infographic provides a simple overview of how cell-site simulators work. The page will also bring together all of our blog posts and other documents on these devices, providing a one-stop shop for anyone who wants to know more about cell-site simulators. 

We also want to hear from you! Please email sls@eff.org if you have news articles or documents demonstrating the use of cell-site simulators, if you know of court cases where cell-site simulators are being litigated, or just want to provide feedback on Street Level Surveillance. And don’t forget to check out our resources for attorneys and community members on Street Level Surveillance.

 

 


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