Government Policy on Cell Phone Interception Technology
New paper: “Your Secret Stingray’s No Secret Anymore: The Vanishing Government Monopoly Over Cell Phone Surveillance and its Impact on National Security and Consumer Privacy,” by Christopher Soghoian and Stephanie K. Pell:
Abstract: In the early 1990s, off-the-shelf radio scanners allowed any snoop or criminal to eavesdrop on the calls of nearby cell phone users. These radio scanners could intercept calls due to a significant security vulnerability inherent in then widely used analog cellular phone networks: calls were not encrypted as they traveled over the air. In response to this problem, Congress, rather than exploring options for improving the security of cellular networks, merely outlawed the sale of new radio scanners capable of intercepting cellular signals, which did nothing to prevent the potential use of millions of existing interception-capable radio scanners. Now, nearly two decades after Congress passed legislation intended to protect analog phones from interception by radio scanners, we are rapidly approaching a future with a widespread interception threat to cellular communications very reminiscent of the one scanner posed in the 1990s, but with a much larger range of public and private actors with access to a much more powerful cellular interception technology that exploits security vulnerabilities in our digital cellular networks.
This Article illustrates how cellular interception capabilities and technology have become, for better or worse, globalized and democratized, placing Americans’ cellular communications at risk of interception from foreign governments, criminals, the tabloid press and virtually anyone else with sufficient motive to capture cellular content in transmission. Notwithstanding this risk, US government agencies continue to treat practically everything about this cellular interception technology, as a closely guarded, necessarily secret “source and method,” shrouding the technical capabilities and limitations of the equipment from public discussion, even keeping its very name from public disclosure. This “source and method” argument, although questionable in its efficacy, is invoked to protect law enforcement agencies’ own use of this technology while allegedly preventing criminal suspects from learning how to evade surveillance.
This Article argues that current policy makers should not follow the worn path of attempting to outlaw technology while ignoring, and thus perpetuating, the significant vulnerabilities in cellular communications networks on which it depends. Moreover, lawmakers must resist the reflexive temptation to elevate the sustainability of a particular surveillance technology over the need to curtail the general threat that technology poses to the security of cellular networks. Instead, with regard to this destabilizing, unmediated technology and its increasing general availability at decreasing prices, Congress and appropriate regulators should address these network vulnerabilities directly and thoroughly as part of the larger cyber security policy debates and solutions now under consideration. This Article concludes by offering the beginnings of a way forward for legislators to address digital cellular network vulnerabilities with a new sense of urgency appropriate to the current communications security environment.