The spy in your pocket; How your phone can be tricked
How many bars do you have on your phone right now?
It's frustrating when the signal is too weak to use it, but sometimes the strongest signals aren't coming from a cell phone tower at all.
You may be connecting with a device that can trick your phone into thinking it's a cell tower, so it can spy on you.
I first learned about cell site simulators while covering a missing hiker in August, I didn't realize the devices can be used to find missing people and according to the ACLU of Washington they are a tool popular with some law enforcement nationwide.
"What comes to mind is a device that connects to your cell phone and potentially sucks up all your data, a very powerful surveillance tool that doesn't necessarily have a lot of transparency around it," said Shankar Narayan, the ACLU of Washington's Technology and Liberty Project Director.
He said a cell site simulator or Stingray can intercept your phone signal, and essentially trick it into connecting to it and 'potentially suck up all your data' like conversations and text messages.
"Just for going about your daily business you are subjected to the kind of surveillance that might be downloading information from your personal phone," said Narayan.
"There is no way that an individual would ever know that their phone had been hooked to a Stingray," said Steve Gibson host of 'Security Now,' a weekly internet security podcast.
Gibson told KOMO News a simulator's operators can figure out who you are, because every cell phone has a unique global identification number.
"The technology is very powerful," said Gibson, "They are catching everyone in the neighborhood and weed out that one particular bad guy they are looking for."
Tacoma PD got a cell site simulator in 2008.
"It is an invasion of privacy," insists Whitney Brady of Tacoma while describing the technology.
Brady, a community activist who has worked on issues such a police accountability and three other Tacoma residents wanted to be certain Tacoma PD was not casting a wide net and collecting data on innocent people during investigations that utilized a simulator.
With the ACLU's help, the group made a public records request to see all related public records, and when they didn't get everything they wanted, the ACLU sued on the resident's behalf in 2016.
"They didnt' give us the electronic data logs from the tool itself which we think should exist. When we sued the judge agreed with us and the judge said they should have produced more documents," said Narayan.
Tacoma is now appealing and said a nondisclosure agreement with the Feds prohibits them from commenting, but in a 2014 statement the PD said it only tracks a phone's location for felony level crimes and lost people, and doesn't collect data.
Brady is still not convinced.
"They say they are looking for one suspect, but when you put that equipment in a group of 500 people?" asked Brady.
Experts say simulators appeal to more than law enforcement.
"The government has been focusing a lot more on it cause there has been concerns about people using them at embassies in Washington, DC," said Peter Ney, a University of Washington PhD. student and security researcher.
He said the devices can be built for about $500, something he believes would make them attractive to foreign governments and even criminals.
Ney is part of a UW research team that developed SeaGlass - a device to snoop on snoopers. For nearly two years they've been singularly focused on one objective.
"Can we build a system that is capable of detecting whether Stingrays, cell site simulators can actually be detected when they are operating," said Ney at the U.W.'s Allen School of Computer Science and Engineering.
The team has developed algorithms to find anomalies in cellular networks.
They tested them in the Seattle metro area last year and believe they may have identified anomalies that may be an indicator of cell simulators but it's still a work in progress. They haven't yet verified their findings and they hope to compare their data with information found in returned public records requests.
At one point the team hoped to develop an app to help cell phone users detect simulators, but now Ney hopes their findings will be used in a broader platform.
The team thinks their data may help industry experts, like chip manufactures to design smarter smart phones.
"The ultimate goal is that people don't have to think about this in the first place and be secure to begin with," said Ney.
In other words, having the ability to hang up on snoopers with phones so secure they can't be snooped on.
The ACLU says it has identified 73 agencies in 25 states and the District of Columbia that own stingrays.
Gibson said one way to get an extra layer of encryption for your calls and messages is by using a third party app that provides instant messaging services.