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

Why is the US federal tax agency using phone interception devices?

Internal Revenue ServiceDocuments acquired by a newspaper show that the Internal Revenue Service, which is the United States government’s agency responsible for collecting taxes, has purchased devices used to intercept cell phone messages. Founded in 1862, the IRS is the revenue service of the US state, and operates as a bureau of the Department of the Treasury. But it also maintains a number investigative components, including the Criminal Investigation Division. The latter consists of between 3,000 and 4,000 personnel and is tasked with investigating and helping build cases for the prosecution relating to tax evasion, money laundering and other financial crimes.

Historically, the Criminal Investigation Division’s scope and tactics have been limited and rarely relied on telecommunications interceptions. But according to British newspaper The Guardian, the IRS purchased a number of Stingray devices in 2009 and 2012. Known also as IMSI catchers, Stingrays are portable communications-interception devices, which mimic the operation of cell phone towers. They gather data, including the phone numbers dialed, duration of phone calls and location of users, from cell phones that communicate with them. Some Stingray models are said to be able to intercept the content of telephone calls made by unsuspecting cell phone users.

According to The Guardian, the IRS made an initial order to purchase Stingray equipment in 2009 and repeated the request in 2012. At least 12 US federal agencies and hundreds of local law enforcement agencies use Stingrays for communications-interception purposes. But the London-based paper says this is the first time that the IRS has been found to be using the devices. It is unclear, however, what the IRS uses the Stingrays for. The Guardian said it contacted an IRS spokesman who refused to respond to questions on the matter.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 27 October 2015 | Permalink

Norway probes intercept equipment found near PM’s home

Parliament of NorwayBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS |
Authorities in Norway are probing a possible espionage operation by a foreign intelligence agency, following the discovery of several electronic surveillance devices located near government buildings in downtown Oslo. The presence of the devices was revealed on December 12 in a leading article by Norwegian daily newspaper Aftenposten, which published the findings of what it said was a two-month technical investigation into the matter. The paper said its reporters teamed up with two leading companies specializing technical surveillance countermeasures. According to the article, investigators came up with a network of surveillance devices disguised to look like cell phone base stations, known as transceivers. But the devices were actually International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI) catchers, essentially fake cell phone towers that are often used clandestinely to intercept telephone traffic among users, as well as their movements. Aftenposten said that the devices, whose unauthorized use is illegal in Norway, had been placed outside the official residence and office of the prime minister, outside the houses of parliament, as well as near major banks and corporate headquarters. IMSI catchers cannot access the content of cellular communications, as most providers encrypt them nowadays; but they can record the telephone numbers of users, as well as pen-register data —namely who calls whom, when, for how long, etc. Additionally, if those behind the surveillance knew the telephone numbers of targeted subscribers, they could keep track of their physical movements through their phone’s GPS system, and identify who they contact on their cellular devices. The newspaper said the surveillance devices were almost certainly installed to monitor the activities of senior Norwegian government officials, as well as perhaps senior executives of companies headquartered in the Norwegian capital. On Monday, Norway’s National Security Authority (NSM) said it thought Aftenposten’s claims were probably correct. NSM Director Kjetil Nilsen said the main question was now who was behind the installations. Norwegian Police Security Service (PST) spokeswoman Siv Alsen told reporters on Monday that “the possibility that this is coming from foreign state agencies” could not be dismissed. She added that the PST would now proceed to probe whether the surveillance network was the work of foreign spies or organized criminal networks. Norway, a founding member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, is traditionally seen as an ally of the United States and has seen its relations with Russia and China strained in recent years.

Fascinating profile of the Soviet KGB’s little-known tech wizard

US Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., displays the Soviet KGB's Great Seal bug at the United NationsBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | |
It is often suggested by intelligence researchers that one major difference between Western and Soviet modes of espionage during the Cold War was their degree of reliance on technology. It is generally accepted that Western espionage was far more dependent on technical innovation than its Soviet equivalent. While this observation may be accurate, it should not be taken to imply that the KGB, GRU, and other Soviet intelligence agencies neglected technical means of intelligence collection. In a recent interview with top-selling Russian newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda, Russian intelligence historian Gennady Sokolov discusses the case of Vadim Fedorovich Goncharov. Colonel Goncharov was the KGB’s equivalent of ‘Q’, head of the fictional research and development division of Britain’s MI6 in the James Bond films. A veteran of the Battle of Stalingrad, Goncharov eventually rose to the post of chief scientific and technical consultant of KGB’s 5th Special Department, later renamed Operations and Technology Directorate. According to Sokolov, Goncharov’s numerous areas of expertise included cryptology, communications interception and optics. While working in the KGB’s research laboratories, Goncharov came up with the idea of employing the principles behind the theremin, an early electronic musical instrument invented by Soviet physicist Léon Theremin in 1928, in wireless audio surveillance. According to Sokolov, the appropriation of the theremin by the KGB under Goncharov’s leadership “changed the world of intelligence”. Read more of this post

Leaked documents show capabilities of new surveillance technologies

Net Optics logo

Net Optics logo

A trove of hundreds of documents, obtained by participants in a secretive surveillance conference, displays in unprecedented detail the extent of monitoring technologies used by governments around the world. The Wall Street Journal, which obtained the leaked documents, says they number in the hundreds; they were reportedly authored by 36 different private companies that specialize in supplying government agencies with the latest surveillance hardware and software. They were among dozens of vendors that participated in an unnamed conference near Washington, DC, in October, which attracted interested buyers from numerous government agencies in America and beyond. The Journal, which has uploaded scanned copies of the leaked documents, says that many include descriptions of computer hacking tools. The latter enable government agencies to break into targeted computers and access data stored in hard drives, as well as log keystrokes by the targeted computers’ users. Other applications target cellular telecommunications, especially the latest models of so-called ‘smartphones’; one vendor in particular, Vupen Security, gave a presentation at the conference, which describes how its products allow for electronic surveillance of cell phones by exploiting security holes unknown to manufacturers. Some of the most popular products at the conference related to what the industry calls “massive intercept” monitoring, namely large-scale software systems designed to siphon vast amounts of telephonic or email communications data, or to capture all Internet exchanges taking place within a country’s computer network. One conference participant, California-based Net Optics Inc., bragged in its presentation about having enabled “a major mobile operator in China” to conduct “real-time monitoring” of all cell phone [and] Internet content on its network. The stated goal of the surveillance was to “analyze criminal activity” and “detect and filter undesirable content”. Read more of this post

News you may have missed #0128

  • US government appeals judge’s order in Cuban Five spy case. US government officials are contending a judge’s order because they say it would be detrimental to US national security. The order requires the US government to turn over any national security damage assessments in the Cuban Five case. Washington accuses the Five of spying on the US for Cuba. Three of the five are to be given new sentences on October 13 after an appeals court ruled that the initial sentences they received (ranging from 19 years to life) were too long.
  • Indian spies want access to missed calls. Indian security agencies have told the country’s Department of Telecommunications that they need access to missed calls because “anti-social elements” may be using the system to communicate without actually making a call. Last month, India’s Intelligence Bureau asked for all VOIP (internet-based) calls in the country to be blocked until it figures out a mechanism to track them. It also said it wants access to the content of all mobile phone calls in the country.
  • New book investigates Stasi’s scientific espionage. Documents from the vaults of HVA (Hauptverwaltung Aufklärung), the foreign department of the Stasi, the East German Ministry for State Security, which were purchased by the CIA from a German informant in 1992, were made available in 2005 to Kristie Macrakis professor of history at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. Her book, Seduced by Secrets: Inside the Stasi’s Spy-Tech World, offers a rare look into the Stasi’s secret technical methods and sources. Macrakis’s analysis of the CIA material reportedly reveals that about 40% of all HVA sources planted in West German companies, research institutions and universities were stealing scientific and technical secrets.

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News you may have missed #0108

  • Fatah dismisses spy chief in West Bank. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has dismissed Palestinian General Intelligence Chief Mohammad Abu Assam. The dismissal appears to be part of a broader plan to unify the Palestinian Preventive Security Service and the General Intelligence Service, who have been fighting a notorious turf war for several years.
  • Indian Intelligence Bureau wants to block all VOIP Services. India’s Intelligence Bureau has instructed the country’s communications ministry to block all VOIP (internet-based) calls in the country until it figures out a mechanism to track them. It has also said it wants access to the content of all mobile phone calls in the country. Indian security agencies have been struggling with this issue since the 2008 Mumbai attacks, after it emerged that the attackers used VOIP software to communicate with the their handlers.
  • Is Afghan President’s brother a US informant? There is speculation that Ahmed Wali Karzai, notorious drug lord and younger brother of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, is in fact an informant for US intelligence agencies. It true, this would explain why he has been allowed by US agencies to operate freely in the country.

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News you may have missed #0029

  • Iranians revolting against Nokia for alleged spying complicity. Consumer sales of Nokia handsets in Iran have allegedly fallen by up to 50%, reportedly because of the company’s membership in the Nokia Siemens Networks (NSN) partnership. As intelNews has been pointing out since last month, NSN allegedly helped supply the Iranian government with some of the world’s most sophisticated communications surveillance systems.
  • Analysis: Why NSA’s Einstein 3 project is dangerous. This editorial argues that US President Barack Obama’s decision to proceed with a Bush administration plan to task the National Security Agency with protecting government computer traffic on private-sector networks is “antithetical to basic civil liberties and privacy protections” in the United States.
  • New US government report says Bush secrecy hampered intelligence effectiveness. A new report from the Offices of Inspectors General of the Department of Defense, Department of Justice, CIA, NSA, and Office of the Director of National Intelligence, says that the Bush administration’s decision to keep NSA’s domestic wiretap program secret seriously hampered the broader intelligence community’s ability to use the program’s output.

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Fears raised of Iranian-style surveillance in the US

NSN Logo

NSN Logo

Nokia Siemens Networks has denied allegations, published in The Wall Street Journal and reported by intelNews, that it helped the Iranian government acquire what experts describe as “one of the world’s most sophisticated mechanisms” for spying on Iranian telecommunications users. But critics remain unconvinced and are raising concerns about the use of similar intrusive capabilities by Internet service providers (ISPs) in the US. The Open Internet Coalition, a consortium of online business and consumer groups, has sent letters [.pdf] to US Congress members urging them to consider regulating the use of deep packet inspection technology. In addition to blocking or monitoring target communications, deep packet inspection enables ISPs and monitoring agencies to trace and alter the content of messages exchanged between users. Read more of this post

Western companies help Tehran spy on protestors

NSN Logo

NSN Logo

Numerous celebratory articles have appeared recently in several blogs that praise Western Internet firms for “help[ing] out the pro-democracy movement inside [Iran]”. These articles overlook Tehran’s extremely powerful Internet and telephone spying capabilities, which experts describe as “one of the world’s most sophisticated mechanisms”. Moreover, as intelNews reported last April, the Iranian government acquired these mechanisms with the help of some of Europe’s leading telecommunications hardware and software manufacturers, who were all too happy to supply Tehran with advanced means to spy on its own people. Read more of this post

Western companies sold phone spy equipment to Iran

For about a year now, political dissidents in Iran have suspected that the Iranian government’s ability to spy on private communications has intensified, covering for the first time cell phone and instant messaging exchanges. Last Monday it emerged that two European telecommunications hardware manufacturers are actually behind the Iranian government’s increased surveillance capabilities. The Wall Street Journal reports that Nokia Siemens Networks (NSN) sold Iran Telecom –Iran’s government-owned telecommunications provider– a sophisticated surveillance system, in the summer of 2008. NSN is an engineering partnership between Finland’s Nokia Corporation and German hardware manufacturer Siemens AG, Europe’s largest engineering firm. Read more of this post

Unprotected Wi-Fi now seen as security threat in India

IntelNews has been reporting on the interesting technical intelligence details of the November 2008 attacks in the Indian city of Mumbai. On January 7, we explained that the organizers of the attacks used a virtual number, 1-201-253-1824, set up by a California-based VOIP (voice-over-Internet protocol) telecommunications provider, to communicate with the assailants on the ground in real-time. Now the Mumbai Police have said they will start monitoring the city’s neighborhoods for unprotected Wi-Fi networks, and instructing their owners to secure them on the spot. This is because militant groups have apparently been logging on to unprotected wireless networks to sent emails claiming responsibility for several attacks in the country. Last November it emerged that the email claiming responsibility for the Mumbai attacks was sent by an individual with “technical expertise and their knowledge of sophisticated [anonymizing] software”.

Speculation about NSA vetting of Obama’s wireless gadgets

Obama calling

Obama calling

Longtime technology correspondent Declan McCullagh has published a lengthy article speculating about the wireless communications options for incoming US President Barack Obama. He suggests that Obama’s heavy use of Blackberry distinctly raises “the possibility of eavesdropping [on wireless Presidential communications] by hackers and other digital snoops” and reminds that the President-Elect’s cell phone records with Verizon “were improperly accessed last year” by unauthorized company technicians. McCullagh speculates that the incoming President will be separated from his Blackberry and will be given instead a National Security Agency (NSA)-approved PDA phone designed under the US Pentagon’s SME-PED project, which stands for Secure Mobile Environment Portable Electronic Device. SME-PED communications are said to be user-friendly Blackberry replacements for high-level US government officials. McCullagh contacted the NSA for his article. The Agency, of course, declined to comment.

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