The task force will examine the use of the technology by foreign intelligence agencies and criminals targeting Americans.
The task force will examine the use of the technology by foreign intelligence agencies and criminals targeting Americans.

A digital rights group says it is wary of a new government task force set to examine the illegal use of stingray devices against Americans.

On Monday, The Washington Post revealed that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) recently created the task force to look into how the technology is leveraged by “criminal gangs and foreign intelligence services.”

While stingray devices had typically been brought up in privacy debates surrounding their use by law enforcement to track cell phones, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said in a letter to Congressman Alan Grayson, D-Fla., that the group would instead focus on the “illicit and unauthorized use of IMSI catchers," (or stingray technology) with the mission of developing “concrete solutions to protect the cellular network,” from such privacy intrusions.

On Aug. 1, Wheeler responded to Grayson in a letter, after the congressman sought answers from the commission on whether it had known about vulnerabilities in cellular networks that were reportedly exploited to spy on Americans.

Stingray devices essentially operate as a fake cell phone tower in order to siphon data from nearby phones that connect to it. In response to privacy concerns surrounding stingray use, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) created a map showing which local and state police have such devices. The group found that five states, including New York and Florida, had both local and state police who made use of the surveillance gear. In the majority of states, however, police use of IMSI catchers was unknown, ACLU revealed.

On Wednesday, April Glaser, an activist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) told SCMagazine.com that the creation of the task force comes as FCC has continued to make statements over the past few months about moving into the cyber security space.

Glaser, who has testified at numerous FCC hearings and even had some of her research implemented into the commission's rules, said that stingray surveillance was “very new terrain for the commission." The FCC regulates interstate and international communications over radio, television, wire, satellite and cable throughout the country.

“Regarding the ‘illegal' use of stingray technologies, I am not really sure if this is the regulatory body to be doing this,” Glaser said. “Not only does the FCC not have the background or the public accountability that Congress, for instance, has – but if the FCC is looking to make policy here, there are not as many mechanisms for groups or citizens to participate [in the process],” she said.

On Wednesday, SCMagazine.com reached out to the FCC, and a spokesperson for the agency directed the outlet to Chairman Wheeler's letter to Congressman Grayson.

In an emailed statement, the agency did said that the group “is an internal task force that will draw on expertise from across the agency.”

In Wheeler's letter, he wrote that, in addition to creating solutions for protecting cellular communications, that the task force could also “leverage the agency's risk responsibility with [its] federal partners” at the Justice Department, FBI and Department of Homeland Security.