What is the Stingray Phone Tracker?

“The government is tracking your phone calls.”

The mysterious planes in the sky are run by the FBI and they contain phone tracking tools.

Drones can be used to intercept mobile phone calls.

Can they really do this? How? Bob Cromwell mentioned a product (which is really now a family of products) called Stingray in a post on this blog a couple of years ago on the advances of government surveillance. The Stingray phone tracker is made by Harris Corporation primarily for law enforcement.

How the Stingray Phone Tracker Works

The Stingray devices have many functions, among them the abilities to capture mobile phone call metadata (who called whom for how long), record mobile phone conversations and impersonate a phone cell. This is clearly a valuable tool for law enforcement to use to catch criminals and pursue suspects. Other products performing similar functions are often called “Stingrays” as well.

If you are interested, the Wikipedia article on Stingray gives a more complete summary of its operation. Basically it can either listen to information on the airwaves or it can pretend to be a phone cell and capture information that way. Mobile phones choose a cell to use by selecting the strongest cell signal. The Stringray either has the strongest signal in the area, or convinces the phone it does. At any rate, the phone selects the Stingray to use as its preferred cell.

The technology has apparently been around for a while, although Harris seems to have been the first to commercialize it. The equipment engineers use to test cellular systems has these capabilities, but is generally not very user friendly.

Is this a Stingray Phone Tracker?
Joe Ravi [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Cell Phone Privacy

In April, Ars Technica reported on a device from a company called Pwnie Express that could detect Stringrays and other cellular “threats”. Some rooted Android phone can reportedly use an app called SnoopSnitch to detect some cellular attacks including rogue cell towers. These are cell towers set up using attack tools by either governments or hackers.

Phone tracking can be done from planes, too. On June 2 the AP reported that multiple government agencies – including the FBI – were doing so. It’s unclear what data they are actually collecting or what tools they are using, but it is clearly being done.

What’s the lesson from all this? For me it’s simple: don’t trust your mobile phone to be secure. Whether it’s by a Stingray phone tracker or other device, it can be tracked and the conversations overheard. It also seems clear that both the good guys and the bad guys can do the tracking and eavesdropping. That implies that confidential conversations should not be made over mobile phones. It also means that if you really don’t want people to know where you are, turn off your phone and put it in a Faraday cage container, or – perhaps a better idea – leave it somewhere where you aren’t.

Let us know about your mobile phone concerns in the comments below.

To your safe computing,
John McDermott


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