One of my favorite fairytales is the one about government regulations being able to restrict the proliferation of technology.
IMSI catchers are widely used by government law enforcers for surveillance. The devices, for those of you unfamiliar, act as cell towers and by so doing get local cell phones to connect to it instead of the legitimate cell towers. It’s a man in the middle attack that allows law enforcers to snoop any unencrypted data transmitted or received by a victim’s cell phone.
In the United States the use of such device by non-law enforcers is sternly frowned upon. With the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) restrictions on the civilian use of IMSI catchers you might be lead to think the devices are hard to acquire. Not so. There is one thing that always renders government restrictions on technology impotent: the black market:
Across a tinny Skype connection, a Hong Kong tech company is trying to sell us state surveillance equipment.
“I switched it on already,” says Edward Tian, holding up a backpack containing a box and wires. “This is the antenna. This is the battery […] Everything is this simple.”
It’s a $15,000 IMSI catcher operated via an Android app. Tian shows us the user interface in a grainy video. He hits a button on the app and information on a bunch of cellphones in the area trickles down the screen. He has their IMSI (International Mobile Subscriber Identity, a unique identifier for their SIM card), IMEI (International Mobile Equipment Identity—the same for their device), and even full phone numbers.
Any perceived control over a technology is nothing more than an illusion.