LAS VEGAS — You may have heard reports of mystery cell phone towers popping up around the country, including in the Las Vegas area. The I-Team looked into who’s behind them and whether your cell phone is secure.

The issue of cell phone security and mystery cell towers has been a popular news topic.

“The phone is being tricked into saying “I am the only cell tower available to you,” but the truth is, it’s not really a cell tower,” explains Les Goldsmith with ESD America.

He ought to know what’s really behind fake cell tower mania. It began with a magazine story about his product — the Cryptophone. The Cryptophone has its own encryption and software that can detect when the signal is being intercepted by something called an International Mobile Subscriber Information, or IMSI Catcher.

“So, we’ve already had one alert to show that is has connected to an IMSI Catcher,” Goldsmith said.

Someone using an IMSI Catcher can capture basic data about your phone. Goldsmith says more advanced versions called interceptors can download email and monitor calls. The devices mimic cell towers, but they’re not towers.

“The phone is being told you don’t have a choice, you have to do it my way. So, it’s being forced by the interceptor/IMSI Catcher to connect to it,” Goldsmith said. “So, right now both phones are being pinged by the interceptor every 30, 35 seconds.” 

The I-Team went with Goldsmith to find an IMSI Catcher and they did. However, Goldsmith has reason to believe, in this case, it’s a law enforcement device of which the most common is called a stingray.

A stingray is a device which can be hidden and moved into an area where police want to capture cell phone data from suspects. The stingray overrides other cell towers in the area and scoops up the signal of phones near it. Data is captured by law enforcement and the signal passed along to an actual cell tower so the person with the phone has no idea anything happened. Some privacy advocates think stingray is aptly named.

“Yeah, you know I think that is exactly it. The way the thing works is it scoops up everyone’s data and so it is absolutely a fishing expedition to a certain extent. It’s hard to particularize that as the 4th Amendment requires,” said Hanni Fakhoury, Electronic Frontier Foundation.

While conceding secrecy is needed in law enforcement, Fakhoury and others are concerned about what happens to data collected from the phones of innocent bystanders.

“We don’t have and we have never really seen any policies on the part of police department where they explain what they do with the data,” Fakhoury said. “You know, the non-responsive data. Are they deleting it? Are they sharing it with other law enforcement agencies? We don’t really know. No one’s really been forthright about it.”

The I-team is choosing not to reveal the location of the alerts because it appears to be part of a law enforcement operation.

One area that is definitely a target rich environment for illegal interceptors is the Las Vegas Strip.

“There’s a lot of meetings, a lot of conferences, a lot of high level executives coming for, you know, a dinner party or something. So, you just have no idea what information is being leaked out of these locations,” Goldsmith said.

On this particular day, the I-Team doesn’t find any interceptors on the Strip, but Goldsmith’s company has produced a map of devices detected by his customers around the U.S.

Goldsmith thinks most are less benign than the one the I-Team found outside Las Vegas.

“Our suspicion remains — and a lot of people are skeptical of this — but our suspicion remains that many of them are, in fact, foreign intelligence or they’re people using open BTS (Base Transceiver Station) programs and so forth from a laptop and trying to steal information,” Goldsmith said.

While Goldsmith believes there are more bad guys out there with interceptors than cops, he’s in the business of selling secure cell phones. Nonetheless, he has a philosophy that’s worth passing along. Think of your phone as a communications device, not a safe. Be mindful of what you’re storing in there.

As for stingrays, police must obtain a court order to use them, but not a search warrant which is generally more difficult to get.