A new report from the House of Representatives Oversight Committee revealed cell phone interceptors are used by government agencies and law enforcement all across the country.
The documents from the committee show hundreds of the “stingrays” used by agencies like the FBI, the DEA, and even the IRS; a map created by the ACLU indicates Florida law enforcement using the devices for investigations as well.
Cell phone interceptors act like regular cell phone towers, giving your handheld device connections for phone calls, text messages, and data use. But interceptors are also information gathering tools.
They can allow listening in on phone calls, interceptions of text messages and data use, and locations of where the phone is used.
Law enforcement can use the devices during investigations, but many of them have non-disclosure agreements, meaning they can’t reveal when or how the device was used in an investigation.
Debates wage on in courtrooms about the legality of the units, and the ACLU argued against them.
“When you don’t have any transparency, you don’t have any way to make sure that they’re being used appropriately,” Fort Myers defense attorney Spencer Cordell shared. “If they’re collecting private information that could be considered a search, they need to be getting a warrant.”
On the other side, ESD America Inc. is a defense and law enforcement technology provider that created the Cryptophone. The phone makes it impossible to listen in when it communicates with other Cryptophones. It also alerts users on other calls if the phone is using an interceptor instead of a regular cell phone tower.
“An interceptor will fool a cell phone to saying ‘I’m the only available tower that you can talk to,'” Buzz Bruner explained. Bruner is the director of Strategy for ESD America. “Of the interceptors that we detect, 70 percent of them are non-U.S. government, non-U.S. law enforcement, non-U.S. intelligence.”
Bruner exposed the broader concern that interceptors used by “bad guys” or nation states are detected far more often than law enforcement interceptors.
Both men agree that oversight is necessary for the use of interceptors within the proper guidelines of the law, but concerns remain over how to keep just anyone from being connected to your phone without your permission.
“There are lawful ways to do this,” Cordell explained. “There are lawful ways to collect data to investigate people.”
“There’s the fine balance that we have to deal with in the world today,” Bruner said. “You may have nothing to hide but you have a lot to protect on your telephone.”
Get More: Safeguarding your phone
Up-to-date Apple and Android systems can encrypt data.
Apple uses end-to-end encryption for text messages so nobody can read them in transit.
Both Apple and Android also offer encryption for store information, too.
If you do decide to encrypt your phone, be prepared for it to slow down a little. If you encrypt an Android phone, the only way to undo it is to reset to factory settings, so you’ll lose anything you have stored if you haven’t backed it up.
Remember, even if your phone is secure, the apps you download may not be.
Aside from the ESD Cryptophone, another company called Silent Circle also sells smartphones with enhanced security built right in.
It’s call the Blackphone 2, mainly targeted to businesses that require privacy.
They also have an app that can be used on any IOS or Android device.
And a nonprofit group called Open Whisper has released software called Signal, which secures both instant messages and voice calls.
It’s available for both IOS and Android devices and requires both the sender and the recipient to use the software over a Wi-Fi or data connection.