The Department of Homeland Security last year found evidence of devices that can secretly catch cell phone communications around the White House and other “potentially sensitive” areas of Washington, D.C., a letter made public Friday reveals.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said that the letter, written to him by Homeland Security official Christopher Krebs, is “more evidence” that Americans are “being spied on, tracked, or scammed,” possibly by foreign spy agencies in some cases.
Wyden said phone companies and the Federal Communications Commission should be taking action to strengthen cell phone security on the heels of the letter.
Homeland Security said sensors it deployed from January 2017 through November spotted activity that appeared consistent with the devices, which can monitor individual cellphone calls and texts. Known formally as International Mobile Security Identity devices, they are commonly known as StingRays.
Such devices are known to be used by foreign spies.
The U.S. government concluded within the past two years that Israel was most likely behind the placement of cellphone surveillance devices that were found near the White House and other sensitive locations around Washington, according to three former senior U.S. officials with knowledge of the matter.
But unlike most other occasions when flagrant incidents of foreign spying have been discovered on American soil, the Trump administration did not rebuke the Israeli government, and there were no consequences for Israel’s behavior, one of the former officials said.
The miniature surveillance devices, colloquially known as “StingRays,” mimic regular cell towers to fool cellphones into giving them their locations and identity information. Formally called international mobile subscriber identity-catchers or IMSI-catchers, they also can capture the contents of calls and data use.
The devices were likely intended to spy on President Donald Trump, one of the former officials said, as well as his top aides and closest associates — though it’s not clear whether the Israeli efforts were successful.
Trump is reputed to be lax in observing White House security protocols. POLITICO reported in May 2018 that the president often used an insufficiently secured cellphone to communicate with friends and confidants. The New York Times subsequently reported in October 2018 that “Chinese spies are often listening” to Trump’s cellphone calls, prompting the president to slam the story as “so incorrect I do not have time here to correct it.” (A former official said Trump has had his cellphone hardened against intrusion.)
By then, as part of tests by the federal government, officials at the Department of Homeland Security had already discovered evidence of the surveillance devices around the nation’s capital, but weren’t able to attribute the devices to specific entities. The officials shared their findings with relevant federal agencies, according to a letter a top Department of Homeland Security official, Christopher Krebs, wrote in May 2018 to Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.).
Based on a detailed forensic analysis, the FBI and other agencies working on the case felt confident that Israeli agents had placed the devices, according to the former officials, several of whom served in top intelligence and national security posts.
That analysis, one of the former officials said, is typically led by the FBI’s counterintelligence division and involves examining the devices so that they “tell you a little about their history, where the parts and pieces come from, how old are they, who had access to them, and that will help get you to what the origins are.” For these types of investigations, the bureau often leans on the National Security Agency and sometimes the CIA (DHS and the Secret Service played a supporting role in this specific investigation).
“It was pretty clear that the Israelis were responsible,” said a former senior intelligence official.
An Israeli Embassy spokesperson, Elad Strohmayer, denied that Israel placed the devices and said: “These allegations are absolute nonsense. Israel doesn’t conduct espionage operations in the United States, period.”
Sure. And Israel doesn't have a nuclear weapons, either.
If any other country on Earth had been caught doing this, it would have been a massive international incident. But the Israelis got busted and it didn't matter. Now, I'm sure whatever intelligence Netanyahu wanted, he got by asking. But at least in January 2017, the plan was tapping Trump's unsecured cell phone.
Here's the question though. Why are we finding out about this now? Maybe this has something to do with it
ICE wants to hack more phones. A lot more.
The contentious immigration enforcement agency has expanded its work with Cellebrite, an Israeli data extraction company best known for offering to crack the San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone at the behest of the FBI in 2016. Cellebrite reportedly broke into the device for the Bureau, though the FBI disputed that story. The company’s technology can bypass most smartphones’ locks and download data from all their apps for law enforcement.
According to a recent federal filing, ICE will pay Cellebrite between $30 and $35 million for “universal forensic extraction devices” (UFED) and “accessories licenses, training and support services.” The contract, worth more than ten times the value of the $2.2 million agreement between the two agencies signed in 2017, will last between one and five years. The request originated from ICE’s Dallas office, according to a notice of intent posted June 24th. The synopsis of the contract also states that Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) and its Cyber Crimes Center (C3) plan to use Cellebrite’s technology. Within ICE, HSI leads investigations into child trafficking, drug smuggling, and fraud.
A single UFED retails for $5,000 to $15,000, according to Forbes, meaning ICE could be buying as many as 6,000 the devices from Cellebrite.
It’s unclear what use ICE will put Cellebrite’s technology to and where it will do so. When The Daily Beast contacted ICE Contracting Officer Tracy Riley for details, Riley said she would “absolutely” not provide more details about the contract. Cellebrite did not respond to a request for comment. ICE’s office of public affairs responded to The Daily Beast but did not yet provide a comment.
CBP officers searched the devices of more than 30,000 international travelers in 2017—10,000 more than the year prior, according to the most recently available data (ICE does not make such data available). In response to a lawsuit filed against the two agencies last year, CBP and ICE said their searches were “a crucial tool for detecting evidence relating to terrorism and other national security matters” and “can also reveal information about financial and commercial crimes.”
Privacy advocates have decried warrantless searches of electronic devices at the border for allegedly violating constitutional protections against unreasonable search and seizures.
Trump looks the other way on the spying, and the US gets cellphone cracking tech from Israel in return...or maybe Israel threatened to kill the contract if the White House made a fuss.
But again, somebody leaked the Stingray story. Three "former US officials". Within 24 hours of news that Andrew McCabe is probably facing federal indictments.
This is far from over, folks.