More IMSI-Catcher Revelations, Including That ‘Stingrays’ May Soon Be Obsolete

The existence of IMSI-catchers, or “Stingrays” as the cell phone surveillance devices are known by their brand name, was first reported a few years ago, but many people remain unfamiliar with them. While many details about how they’re used by various law enforcement agencies remain unknown, more continue to emerge.

Last week documents were revealed, for example, confirming the use of IMSI-catchers by officials in the U.K., specifically by the Scottish Prison Service at two prisons. Earlier this month, the New York Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against the NYPD regarding their use of Stingrays, following revelations earlier this year that the department used the devices more than 1,000 times without warrants.

IMSI stands for “international mobile subscriber identity” number, which is a unique ID number associated with every cell phone. Stingrays, so-called for the brand name of devices manufactured by Florida-based Harris Corp., work by  mimicking cell towers to get nearby phones to send them information. This can include location data as well as things like text messages, the content of calls, or other information stored on a phone.

While their existence has only been made public in the past few years, Stingray-like devices have actually been in use for more than two decades. And now, though much remains secret about how they’ve been used for years by police departments across America, Stingrays themselves may be close to obsolescence.

A company called Ability Inc. is marketing a product with capabilities described by Forbes as “far more advanced than that of IMSI-catchers.” According to a document posted to the company’s website earlier this month, its Unlimited Interception System does not need to be within close physical range of the target phone.

The surveillance tool, which can reportedly cost up to $20 million, depending how many people the user wishes to track, requires only a phone number or IMSI, otherwise functioning “without the need to be close to the intercepted phone and without the consent of mobile network operators.”

There are reportedly products on the market that claim to be able to detect Stingray monitoring or otherwise offer protection against IMSI-catchers. But it remains troubling that just as we are beginning to learn the extent of ways that IMSI-catchers are being used – not only by police departments and law enforcement agencies, but also reportedly by others including tech companies and defense contractors – an even more advanced surveillance technology appears to be emerging.

You couldn’t ask for a better example of the way that legislation and regulation lags behind the advance of technology, and the way that government and business interests find ways to exploit that lag.

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