In June 2015, a Sky News investigation uncovered at least 20 rogue telephone masts operating in London. The IMSI catchers — also known as Stingrays or cell-site simulators — mimic mobile phone masts and trick phones into logging on and giving access to the owners’ calls and data.
The sophisticated surveillance technology listens to mobile phone conversations without the owners’ permission by leading the handsets to believe they are genuine mobile phone towers. As with all controversial surveillance techniques, they are allegedly used by security agencies to target the communications of criminals. Like other methods of data harvesting, stingrays monitor thousands of phones at a time and sweep information from all devices in the targeted area — yes, that means yours.
VICE News went further than Sky, with an in-depth investigation that revealed evidence of Stingrays being employed at several locations in the British capital. Areas in the surveillance dragnet included the U.K. parliament, a peaceful anti-austerity protest, and the Ecuadorian embassy — home of WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange.
Due to the U.K.’s legal policy of refusing to discuss IMSI catchers on national security grounds, the VICE report was unable to determine whether the signals it detected in London belonged to state apparatus. Investigators asked the House of Commons whether phone signal boosters exist at the location and were told by a press officer that there are none. Further Freedom of Information (FOI) requests were rejected on the grounds that disclosure of the information “would be likely to prejudice the prevention and detection of crime.”
Another example of the U.K. authorities’ blatant refusal to confirm or deny their use of Stingrays came last June from Metropolitan Police Force commissioner, Bernard Hogan-Howe. He told Sky News: “We’re not going to talk about it, because the only people who benefit are the other side, and I see no reason in giving away that sort of thing.”
Advocacy group Privacy International has accused the U.K. of being dangerously behind the international curve in its response to IMSI catchers. They claim: “The longer this goes on, the greater the curve will grow. And all the while thousands of innocent people will be unfairly swept up in the use of broad, suspicionless surveillance.”
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