Saudi Arabia may be abusing global phone tracking system to spy on dissidents

Saudi TelecomThe government of Saudi Arabia may be exploiting a decades-old tracking system embedded in the global mobile telecommu- nications network in order to spy on its citizens as they travel abroad, a report suggests. The report was published on Sunday in the British broadsheet The Guardian, based on documents provided by an anonymous whistle-blower.

The alleged documents may implicate Saudi Arabia’s three largest cellular telecommuni- cations service providers, said The Guardian, namely Mobily, Zain and Saudi Telecom. The anonymous whistle-blower told the paper that these companies were “weaponizing mobile technologies”, allegedly under the direction of Saudi Arabia’s ruling monarchy, which is notorious for suppressing political dissent within and outside the oil kingdom.

The alleged method of surveillance relies on SS7, a decades-old feature of the global cellular telecommunications system, which allows cellular providers to provide service to mobile phone users as they travel internationally. The SS7 system allows a mobile phone registered in a specific country to be used from a different country, and its user to be charged for the service. But to do so with accuracy, the SS7 system enables the service provider to track the owner of the device being charged for the phone call. This is done through what is known in cellular telecommunications parlance as a Provide Subscriber Location, or PSL, request.

According to The Guardian, Saudi cellular telecommunications providers have been making “excessive use” of PSLs in recent years. This indicates possible attempts to track the physical movements of Saudi cell mobile phone users who are traveling to the United States, and possibly other countries. The paper said that millions of PSLs were filed by Saudi Arabia in a one-month period in November of 2019. There is no telling how long this alleged surveillance operation has been going on, and in how many countries.

The paper also said that Ron Wyden, a Democratic senator from the US state of Oregon, who is a member of the Senate’s powerful Committee on Intelligence, has written to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) about the privacy vulnerabilities of the SS7 system. However, the FCC has taken no action on the matter.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 30 March 2020 | Permalink

US government publicly admits existence of rogue phone-tapping devices in DC

Embassy RowThe United States government has for the first time admitted publicly that it has detected devices known to be used by foreign intelligence services to spy on cellular communications in the nation’s capital. Known commonly as Stingrays, after a leading hardware brand, these devices are primarily used by government agencies, including law enforcement. But they can be purchased by anyone with anywhere from $1,000 to $200,000 to spare. They work by simulating the activity of legitimate cell towers and tricking cell phones into communicating with them. That allows the users of these cellphone-site simulators to monitor the physical whereabouts of targeted cell phones. Some of the more expensive Stingray models can intercept the actual content of telephone conversations and can even plant Trojans on the compromised phones of unsuspecting users.

Many governments have expressed concerns about the use of these devices, which are known to be used by intelligence agencies to monitor cellular communications on foreign soil. Major cities around the world, including Washington, are major targets of cellphone-site simulators, which are frequently located inside foreign embassies. However, the US government has never publicly commented on this issue, despite intense rumors that government agencies headquartered in Washington are major targets of Stingray devices. This changed recently, however, after Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) wrote a letter to the Department of Homeland Security seeking information about the use of such devices in Washington. Wyden received a written response from Christopher Krebs, who heads the DHS’ National Protection and Programs Directorate. In the letter, dated March 26, Krebs confirmed that the DHS detected a number of active Stingrays in the DC area in 2017, which he referred to as “anomalous activity consistent with Stingrays”. But he added that the DHS lacks both funding and equipment needed to detect the full number of the devices and the full spectrum of Stingrays that are active in the nation’s capital.

The Associated Press, which published Krebs’ letter, said it acquired it from Wyden’s office in the US Senate. The news agency noted that the letter from DHS did not provide the technical specifications of the cellphone-site simulators, and did not enter into speculation about who might be employing them. Additionally the letter did not provide the exact number of Stingrays detected in DC in 2017, nor did it provide the exact locations in DC where Stingray activity was traced. In response to Krebs’ letter, Senator Wyden’s office released a statement blaming the US Federal Communications Commission for having failed to hold the cellular telecommunications industry accountable for the lack of security against Stingrays. “Leaving security to the phone companies has proven to be disastrous”, Senator Wyden’s statement concluded.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 4 April 2018 | Permalink

News you may have missed #794

GCHQ center in Cheltenham, EnglandBy IAN ALLEN | intelNews.org |
►►Racism charge against GCHQ settled out of court. The British government’s SIGINT agency, GCHQ has been spared having its inner workings broadcast in public after a potentially embarrassing racism case was settled out of court at the last minute. The racial harassment and constructive dismissal lawsuit had been filed by Alfred Bacchus, a 42-year-old former employee. There are unconfirmed reports that, as part of the settlement, the plaintiff has signed a non-disclosure agreement banning him from revealing any more details about his complaints.
►►US spy agencies renew call for electronic surveillance rights. US intelligence officials had made a public plea on Tuesday, the 11th anniversary of the September 11, 2001, attacks, for quick Congressional action to extend a sweeping but controversial US electronic surveillance law. If the law, which expires at the end of 2012, is not extended, US spy agencies say they would lose access to what they describe as a “very, very important source of valuable intelligence information”. But at least one congressional critic of the surveillance law, Democratic Senator Ron Wyden, says he is willing to use legislative tactics to stall the bill, which has been passed by the House, unless the administration and other legislators agree to include stronger provisions to protect Americans’ civil liberties.
►►Yemen claims arrest of ‘Mossad agent’. Al-Nas, a Yemeni weekly associated with the Islamist Yemeni Reform Party, reported last weekend that an Israeli citizen, identified only by his initials and year of birth, 1982, was arrested in the southwestern city of Taizz. He reportedly admitted to smuggling children out of Yemen to neighboring countries and from there to Israel “through Zionist organizations”. Bizarrely, the man reportedly told his Yemeni interrogators that he “spent three years in a Greek prison for researching the biographies of well-known computer hackers”.

News you may have missed #751

Leonid ShebarshinBy IAN ALLEN | intelNews.org |
►►Ex-CIA officer remembers his KGB rival. In April, Leonid Shebarshin, a retired General of the KGB, who was often referred to as “the last Soviet spy”, was found dead in his downtown Moscow apartment. Apparently, he had committed suicide. Now Milt Bearden, who was the CIA’s Chief of the Soviet/East European Division during the final years of the USSR, has written a piece in which he remembers Shebarshin. He says that, even though Shebarshin was “the closest thing [he] had to a main adversary” in the USSR, the two became friends in the late 1990s, despite the fact that Shebarshin remained a true believer in the USSR until the very end of his life.
►►NSA won’t reveal how many Americans it spied on. Last month, US Senators Ron Wyden and Mark Udall –both members of the US Senate’s Select Committee on Intelligence– asked the NSA how many persons inside the US it had spied upon since 2008. But Charles McCullough, the Inspector General of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, has told the two Senators that giving such a figure of how many Americans were spied on was “beyond the capacity” of NSA’s oversight mechanisms, and that –ironically– looking into this matter would violate the privacy of American citizens.
►►Russian scientist who ‘spied for China’ freed. Igor Reshetin, the former director of Russian rocket technology firm TsNIIMASH-Export, who was jailed in 2007 for selling state secrets to China, has been released on parole. Reshetin had been initially sentenced to nearly 12 years, for illegally selling state-controlled technology secrets to a Chinese firm, and with stealing 30 million rubles (US$925,000) through a scheme involving bogus companies. His initial sentence was later reduced on appeal.

News you may have missed #748 (US edition)

Michael HaydenBy IAN ALLEN | intelNews.org |
►►US lawmakers probe China companies over spy concerns. In letters sent last week to Chinese communications hardware firms Huawei Technologies and ZTE Corporation, a group of senior members of the US House of Representatives Intelligence Committee have outlined concerns about the companies’ ties with the Chinese government, including the role of a “party committee” at Huawei. The lawmakers have also asked about Huawei’s relationships with five US consulting firms and requested an expansive collection of documents, including the contracts between the firms and Huawei.
►►Lone Senator resists Bush/Obama NSA wiretapping plan. The Obama administration wanted a quick, no-questions-asked-or-answered renewal of broad electronic eavesdropping powers that largely legalized the Bush administration’s illegal warrantless wiretapping program. That’s despite President Barack Obama’s campaign promise to revisit and revise the rules to protect Americans’ rights. Everything seemed to be going to plan after a Senate committee approved the re-authorization in secret last month. But Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) has stepped in to stop the bill because the government refuses to say how often the spy powers are being used.
►►What did Hayden tell Obama in January 2009? In December of 2008, a meeting took place between the incoming US Presiden Barack Obama and the departing CIA Director Michael Hayden. Several days later, on January 15, Hayden told journalists that Obama had privately assured him that “no plans to launch a legal inquiry” into the CIA’s use of controversial interrogation methods during the Bush administration. Now, several years later, Salon has published an insider’s account of what was said in that meeting between Obama and Hayden, as well as during the days that followed.