The Fake Cell Phone Towers That Are Tracking Your Phone: Digital Security and IMSI Catchers.
Last week when I was out in San Francisco I attended two workshops on journalist security and safety with Danny O’Brien of the Committee to Protect Journalists and Frank Smyth of Global Journalist Securtiy. As someone who follows these debates, and has read the Journalist Security guide they co-wrote, most of what O’Brien and Smyth discussed wasn’t new to me.
Except one thing: IMSI catachers.
At both events O’Brien talked extensively about the privacy and security threats of IMSI catchers which are essentially a fake mobile phone tower that, according the Massachusetts ACLU, “mimics the behavior of a cell tower and tricks mobile phones into sending data to it, instead of to the tower.” IMSI stands for “International Mobile Subscriber Identity,” a unique identifier that authorities can use to request information about you from cell phone companies to tack your location or identify who attended a protest or other event.
But these towers can do more than simple track phones and users. In a blog post that includes a series of videos from technology companies that build and market IMSI catchers, the Massachusetts ACLU writes:
Once it has made a connection with the phone and tricked it into thinking it is a mobile tower, the IMSI catcher forces the phone to drop its encryption, enabling easy access to the contents of the device. The tool then lets the attacker listen in on mobile conversations and intercept all data sent from a mobile phone, remaining undetected. In some cases the tool also allows the operator to manipulate messages.
Right now the law around IMSI catchers is vague at best, but US athorities have asserted that they don’t need a warrent or other special provisions to deploy these devices. Indeed, records recently obtained by the National ACLU show that “federal law enforcement agencies are increasingly monitoring Americans’ electronic communications, and doing so without warrants, sufficient oversight, or meaningful accountability.”
Clearly this has implications for digital journalists and should be a part of our policy debates about the press freedom and the right to record in a digital age.
Other reading on the topic:
*Photo by Jared Eberhardt via Flickr, used under Creative Commons