Officials at US Homeland Security have detected signs of someone having spied on mobile phones, either within or near the White House. Authorities believe that the miscreants used International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI) catchers, more commonly known as stingrays.
The revelation was made by Senator John Wyden, who had received a letter from Christopher Krebs, the Senior Official Performing the Duties of the Undersecretary for National Protection and Programs Directorate (NPPD), which functions under the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
In the letter, Krebs wrote that the NPPDlaunched a pilot program last year to calculate the extent of mobile surveillance being conducted in the capitol. Homeland Security said it detected stingray devices being used in the vicinity of “potentially sensitive facilities like the White House”.
“DHS has received reports from third parties about the unauthorised use of IMSI catcher technology, as well as reports that nefarious actors may have exploited Signalling System Seven (SS7) vulnerabilities to target the communications of American citizens,” Krebs wrote in the letter.
Stingrays are devices that can spoof legitimate cell phone towers, allowing to hijack communications. Stingrays have previously been used and continue to be used by various government agencies across the globe, including the US government.
Attackers can exploit SS7 using a phone network to hack into hack into another network in the same country or even a different country. By exploiting SS7, attackers can also intercept calls and messages.
“I’ve spent the past year fighting to reveal what a terrible job the telephone companies and FCC are doing at protecting Americans from being spied on, tracked, or scammed. This letter is yet more evidence that these threats are absolutely real and they are already attacking Americans,” Wyden said in a statement. “The news of a possible foreign stingray near the White House is of particular concern giving reports that the President isn’t even using a secure phone to protect his calls.”
A recent report by Politico stated that President Donald Trump uses a White House mobile phone that is not equipped with the required security features that can protect his communications from attackers. Trump reportedly uses two iPhones, one solely to make calls, while the other is known to be his “Twitter phone”. However, according to two unnamed senior White House officials, who spoke to Politico, Trump has dismissed the efforts of White House staffers to improve the security protections of his phones.
Trump’s lax attitude toward security, as well as the DHS’ recent revelations on stingray use near the White House, raises concerns about how easily attackers may be able to intercept sensitive communications and obtain classified information. There is no evidence yet to suggest that either Trump or his staff’s devices may have already been compromised. However, this incident highlights that malicious efforts are currently being made to do so.