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Cell Phone Spying & FCC

Today’s Washington Post had an article entitled “Tech firm tries to pull back curtain on surveillance efforts in Washington”. The above video was part of the article on their web page.

The article discussed the apparent proliferation of “IMSI catchers” in the DC area. It explains

“Known as IMSI catchers, for the unique identifying phone code called an IMSI, the surveillance devices trick mobile phones into thinking they have logged onto legitimate cell networks, such as Verizon or AT&T, when in fact the signals have been hijacked.

For years, researchers have warned of the growing prevalence of the equipment, and Turner said the spygear is rife throughout the Washington area.

In August the Post reported that FCC has been asked by Rep. Grayson to look into allegations that FCC had long known about cellular network vulnerabilities to such privacy invasions.

YOur blogger was particularly troubled by the statement in today’s Post article that said: “It does not have authority, FCC officials say, over government use of this surveillance technology.” Presumably “government” in this context meant “federal government” because clearly FCC has authority over state and local governments with repeat to use of radio transmitters. But even in the case of the the federal government, FCC is not without power. While a straightforward reading of the Communications Act of 1934 gives parallel and independent authority for regulating transmitters to FCC under § 301 and the President for federal users under § 305, since the 1940s the agency administering the President’s § 305 authority, now NTIA, and FCC have had a written understanding that they would seek consent of the other for transmitters in bands where that might impact the transmitters authorized by the other party. The current agreement is here.

In practice, this agreement is rigorously adhered to. So it is inconceivable that NTIA would authorize FBI or some other “3 letter agency” to use a “IMSI catcher” that included a transmitter without informing FCC and seeking “coordination”. This does not involve a vote by the commissioners and is a fairly routine action normally handled within OET. Did the “8th Floor” know about such a request from NTIA? I have no idea. But I am certain that no agency would have taken such action without seeking NTIA authorization and that NTIA would not have given such authorization without seeking some level of approval from FCC.

This the unnamed FCC ”officials” quoted above either didn’t know what they was talking about or were intentionally misleading.



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