Privacy SOS

Want to keep your cell phone information private? That’ll cost you $3,500

Your phone can be easily hacked by government or non-state actors. Probably no one at your cell phone company has warned you about this, but it's true.

Popular Science reports that US military bases throughout the country appear to be equipped with IMSI catcher cell phone sniffers. The devices, which are also sold to state, local, and federal law enforcement in the United States, trick mobile phones into thinking they are cell phone towers. It's then relatively easy for the person manipulating such a tool to hack into and steal information from any nearby device. Some models can even manipulate mobiles, sending spoofed text messages and making ghost calls from them from a distance.

Security conscious technology users have been aware of this threat for some time, but that awareness hasn't made the threat easy to combat. Like with so many things, money changes that. If you have $3,500 you can pay for an encrypted phone that will alert you that someone nearby is sniffing your data. And rich people should seriously consider it; the spy gear appears to be everywhere.

Les Goldsmith, who runs a company selling crypto phones, told Popular Science that the number of cell phone sniffing devices "in the U.S. is much higher than people had anticipated. One of our customers took a road trip from Florida to North Carolina and he found 8 different interceptors on that trip. We even found one at South Point Casino in Las Vegas," he said.

iPhone and Android users are out of luck, for now. If you get ensnared in an IMSI catcher (sometimes known as a "Stingray"), you'll probably never know. When Goldsmith drove by a US military facility to test his phone, he brought along a regular iPhone and Android. The result?

”As we drove by, the iPhone showed no difference whatsoever. The Samsung Galaxy S4, the call went from 4G to 3G and back to 4G. The CryptoPhone lit up like a Christmas tree,” Goldsmith told PopSci.

Some app developers and security geeks have been toying around with commercially viable, easy to use programs that would alert activists and ordinary people to the existence of IMSI catchers near them. But so far, at least to my knowledge, no such app exists today. (Let me know if I'm wrong, please.)

But that should change. Privacy shouldn't only exist for the richest of the rich. Concern about surveillance and privacy is not going away in the United States, and neither is the increasingly rapid proliferation of these dangerous spy tools. Take note, privacy-minded app developers: If you build it, we will download!

© 2024 ACLU of Massachusetts.