Fake mobile phone masts that can be used to eavesdrop on telephone conversations without users being aware have been discovered in London by Sky News. IMSI catchers, also known as “stingrays” after a US company that makes such devices, have been widely used in the US for years. They work by sending out a signal that tricks a mobile phone into connecting with the stingray, rather than a legitimate base station, allowing information to be gathered about the device and its conversations by carrying out a man-in-the-middle (MITM) attack.
It has been suspected for some time that stingrays are being used in the UK: back in 2011, The Guardian ran a story to this effect, but the Metropolitan Police refused to comment. A 2014 article in The Times gave details about what is believed to be the legal framework that regulates their use.
As a post from Privacy International explained, following The Times’ report, “when someone is targeted by an IMSI Catcher, it is considered a ‘property interference’ under the Police Act 1997 Part III … a ‘property interference’ is designed to regulate the placing of bugs and breaking into someone’s home, not mobile phone interception.” This approach allows the use of IMSI catcher devices to be bundled up with other kinds of bugging in official reports, which means it is impossible to know exactly how many times they have been deployed.
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