November 04, 2021

Wyden Urges Administration to Protect Federal Workers, Overseas Military Personnel and Diplomatic Facilities from Counterintelligence Threats

Washington, D.C. – Oregon’s U.S. Senator Ron Wyden pressed the heads of federal law enforcement, defense, intelligence and cybersecurity agencies to take long-overdue action to secure federal facilities against spying threats posed by wireless phone surveillance technology, in a letter today.

Wyden wrote to Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency Director Jen Easterly, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel, and FBI Director Christopher Wray to express concern about the U.S. government’s failure to protect federal workers from the counterintelligence threat posed by cell phone surveillance technology.

In addition to calling for a whole-of-government effort to curtail the potential for surveillance of federal workers’ cell phones, he has urged Director Haines and the FBI to exercise authority granted to them by Congress in 2019 to detect and deploy countermeasures against this technology.

“It has been a matter of public record for decades that phones can be tracked and calls and text messages intercepted using a device called a cell site simulator, which exploits long-standing security vulnerabilities in phones by impersonating a legitimate phone company’s cell towers,” Wyden wrote. “But the U.S. does not and has never had a monopoly over this surveillance technology — cell site simulators are widely available on the global market, including to America’s adversaries. After consecutive administrations failed to address this counterintelligence threat, President Biden now has the opportunity to finally secure America’s phone networks.”

Cell site simulators are devices made to covertly intercept phone calls that have been on sale since the late 1990s, and are commonly-used by law enforcement. Courts have ruled that law enforcement need a warrant to use this technology to track suspects, but as this technology is widely available from companies around the world, its use by foreign governments presents a national security threat. Federal employees both in the United States and overseas in embassies and military bases remain vulnerable to such surveillance from foreign adversaries.

Wyden has pressed the government for years to secure its computer networks and facilities against cybersecurity and surveillance threats. In response to his questions, the Department of Homeland Security revealed that a possible rogue cell-site simulator was detected near the White House in recent years.   Earlier this year, Wyden introduced bipartisan legislation to requires warrants for government use of this technology, and in 2018, demanded phone companies and the FCC to take action to protect Americans’ phones from foreign spies and hackers.

The full letter is available here.