The NSA knew about cellphone surveillance around the White House 6 years ago

As I was stealthily gathering government secrets for the 2013 book I wrote about national security, a source of unimpeachable reliability tipped me off to a big one. The source told me that, in the course of a National Security Agency “information assurance” exercise, the agency discovered cellphone site emulators and even infrastructure around the White House and in downtown Washington, D.C., that did not belong to any companies actually licensed to install them.

The source told me they were “ghost-grabbers.” At least one foreign intelligence agency managed to figure out a way to spy on cellphone calls originating from the area around the White House. Although White House security briefings routinely included warnings about foreign intelligence monitoring of personal and unencrypted cellphones, this was the first time that such an operation had been confirmed to exist in the heart of Washington, D.C.

This, I felt, was a pretty juicy story. I tried to find out more. My source provided some more details.

The NSA, intending to probe the U.S. Secret Service and the White House Communications Agency for security gaps in their communication practices, had obtained a map of the Communication Commission-approved cell towers and antennae in the area, most of them leased to Verizon, AT&T, and Sprint, and subleased to other carriers. Then, techs working for the NSA’s “Red Cell” team used both conventional radio frequency scanners and some secret spy technology to intercept the cell signals that originated from various parts of the 18-acre campus that houses the White House and the executive offices of the president.

Using direction-finding gear, they were able to discern which towers most of the RF traffic was being directed to. They could then subject that traffic to tests: Could they see metadata patterns that revealed who was making a call to whom without having access to the phone records themselves? Could they, on the fly, intercept unencrypted communications, and listen to the content of the conversations? The NSA had obtained access to cellphone call records under its then-secret interpretation of Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act. Members of the Red Cell team who did the field monitoring could compare the signals they gathered with the location data the NSA collected in bulk and figure out which Secret Service and WHCA communications were vulnerable to interception. The Secret Service and WHCA had requested this exercise — the government wasn’t secretly probing these agencies without …read more

Source:: World – The Week

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