A stingray is a marine creature notable for its prey-locating electrical sensors and deadly venom. It's also the common name assigned for some mysterious technology: a "stingray" device used to trick cell phones into giving it their information. And someone's reportedly been using the latter form to spy illegally on cell phone users in Washington, D.C.
The technology works like this: A stingray device fools cell phones in its vicinity into thinking it's a regular cell phone tower. So instead of connecting via an authorized provider, the cell phone user's conversation is instead routed through the stingray itself. The devices can provide an exact location for the cell phone users, and some models are able to intercept audio conversations as well. According to the Associated Press, some even try to install malware on their unsuspecting trapped phones.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced in a letter released Tuesday that it had discovered stingray devices throughout the nation's capital. The revelation came in response to a direct request from Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, but DHS said it was not able to ascertain who or what entities were behind the smattering of stingrays. DHS official Christopher Krebs wrote in his response letter that despite the fact that stingrays "may threaten U.S. national and economic security," his department had neither the funding nor equipment to deal with the problem.
Stingrays are not exactly a new threat. News of their presence — especially in D.C., a top target for international espionage — began circulating back in 2014. That was the year ESD America — a "defense and law enforcement technology provider," per their website — found several stingrays near the White House and other important government buildings.
Aaron Turner, the president of the security consultancy firm Integricell, participated in that 2014 sweep. But despite media reports picking up their findings, not much interest materialized for providing higher security. He told the AP that "little has changed" since then.
Many capital cities are inundated with stingrays, according to security experts. Turner told the AP that any competent foreign embassy will have installed a stingray device on or near their premises. According to him, the equipment in use by the Russians is sophisticated enough to eavesdrop on phones up to a mile from its physical site.
But if stingrays pose such an obvious — and monumental — threat to privacy, to say nothing of security, why haven't they been summarily shut down?
The answer is twofold. One, it's expensive. And it's money the government can't spend itself, but would rather have to rely on cell phone companies to shell out instead. And as the AP notes, those companies have been very averse to making the necessary security upgrades of the sort that would render stingrays ineffective.
Additionally, stingrays aren't just popular amongst foreign powers hungry for state secrets. They're also in use and quite liked by multiple law enforcement agencies. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has tracked at least 25 states with state and/or local police forces who have access to stingray technology. They also list off federal agencies with a known past of using stingrays, including the FBI, DEA, Secret Service, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, IRS, and the NSA. That's represents a good number of people who may have grown used to depending on this kind of technology.
It's unclear what other groups might have their hands on a stingray device. As the AP notes, they can be as cheap as $1,000 a piece (or as pricey as $200,000). As of now, the fact is that cell phone users in D.C. are potential stingray targets. Just who or what wants their information remains a mystery.