Stingray surveillance devices used to spy on the Norwegian Parliament

Pierluigi Paganini December 15, 2014

A newspaper discovers that bad actors are spying on cell phone communications of Norwegian politicians using the StingRay mobile surveillance equipment.

The journalists of a daily newspaper in Norway have discovered a mobile phone surveillance equipment hidden around the Government and Parliamentary building and apparently there is no information on who has used it. Everyday we read about cyber attacks and surveillance malware used by threat actors to exfiltrate sensitive information from targeted systems, but it is not so common to read about mobile phone surveillance equipment used to spy on targets and left unattended at the crime scene. These devices are very expensive and typically occupy the size of a suitcase, the most sophisticated models can cost several hundred thousand dollars, and the fact that they are easily displaceable makes them useful for espionage activities.

The Aftenposten’s report claimed the newspaper has discovered an IMSI-catchers, also known as stingray, placed inside fake mobile phone stations near government and parliamentary buildings in Oslo. The Aftenposten reported the surprising discovery to the Norwegian National SecurityAuthority (NSM), which is responsible for the national and telecommunications security.

Readers that are interested to know the details of the StingRay technology, the cost of the appliances and their users, could give a look to my article “StingRay Technology: How Government Tracks Cellular Devices

Someone is spying on Government representatives, one the devices was discovered also near the residence of Minister Erna Solberg.

“StingRay is an IMSI-catcher (International Mobile Subscriber Identity) designed and commercialized by the Harris Corporation. The cellular-surveillance system costs as much as $400,000 in the basic configuration, and its price varies with add-ons ordered by the agency.”

The term StingRay is generically used today to refer any similar appliance used to spy on cell phone communications, IMSI-catchers are used by government entities to record conversations and track data traffic of any device in the nearby area.

“The IMSI-catcher is a surveillance solution used by military and intelligence agencies for telephone eavesdropping. It allows for intercepting mobile phone traffic and tracking movements of mobile phone users. Essentially, an IMSI catcher operates as a bogus mobile cell tower that sits between the target mobile phone and the service provider’s real towers. The IMSI catcher runs a Man In the Middle (MITM) attack that could not be detected by the users without using specific products that secure communication on mobile devices.”

In Norway, like in many other countries, the StingRay technology is allowed only to law enforcement and intelligence agencies. Local law framework only permits the NSM, the police, and the Police Security Service to use IMSI-catchers.

imsi catcher aka StingRay source ACLU Guardian

The department head at the Norwegian National SecurityAuthority, Hans Christian Pretorius, told to the Aftenposten that the security Agency has started its investigation.

“All the data are not ready yet, but we have also found signals from IMSI-catchers in Oslo.”

Who is behind the attack?

The attribution is quite difficult in these cases, anyway Arne Christian Haugstøyl, the head of Norway’s PST, referred to the The Local that both private actors and state-sponsored hackers could have been involved in the operation.

“I can’t, on the basis of these discoveries, say that it is a foreign intelligence agency, but I can say that we know that foreign intelligence agencies have this kind of capacity,” he said. “And in our preventive work we advise those looking after Norwegian interests not to talk about sensitive issues on mobile phones.”

The use of Stingray technology was a long debated in different countries. “StingRay technology raises serious

“StingRay technology raises serious privacy concerns because of the indiscriminate way it targets cellular devices in a specific area. The dragnet way in which StingRay operates appears to be in contrast with the principle of various laws worldwide.”I wrote in my previous post. “In the US, for example, the Fourth Amendment stands for the basic principle that the US government cannot conduct a massive surveillance operation, also indicated as “general searches”. The Supreme Court recently reiterated that principle in a case involving cell phone surveillance, and confirmed that law enforcement need a warrant to analyze data on the suspect’s cellphone.”

The mobile phone surveillance is a very concerning subject, there is a debated discussion on the used of StingRay IMSI-Catchers and other IMSI-Catcher technologies. Many organizations advocating individual rights are fighting to regulate the adoption of surveillance technologies, but the authorities are often deaf in the name of the Homeland Security.

On the other hand,many projects are proposing solutions to detect mobile surveillance activities, let’s remind for example the recently proposed Detekt tool to scan for state surveillance spyware on phones and PCs, and the app Android IMSI-Catcher Detector (AIMSICD) that was designed to locate and warn users of the presence of IMSI-Catchers.

Pierluigi Paganini

(Security Affairs –  IMSI catcher, StingRay)

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