In September, ESD America -- a company that specializes in selling phones that block cellular spying -- found evidence of several fake cell phone towers operating around the Nation's Capitol. Signals popped around the Russian embassy, during Islamic State briefings at the Senate buildings, and more.
Now the ESD team is launching a campaign to find out just how many of those fake cell phone towers -- which can actually be as small as a suitcase -- are operating across the country.
"Many people suspect that there may be cellular surveillance happening in their neighborhoods and workplaces, but they might not be able to afford the ESD Cryptophone to investigate themselves," Buzz Bruner, Director of Applications for ESD America, told TheBlaze. "So we have created the 'Tin Foil Road Trip' to investigate network issues and suspected interception activity across the lower 48 states -- we want to help address the public's concerns."
Bruner admitted the name "Tin Foil Hat Road Trip" is a bit tongue-in-cheek and is meant to playfully draw attention to the issue, but their company is concerned about a serious threat. He said it is very likely terrorists who have entered the country illegally could be operating these systems.
“The real concern, we believe, is the foreign nationals coming into this country,” Bruner told TheBlaze. “They can come in they can buy a laptop, a couple radio antennas, and they can get special software downloaded from their home country, and all of a sudden they have a pretty effective GSM cell simulator.”
In simple terms, Bruner explained that when a person is conducting surveillance with a cell site simulator, the gadget will trick a person's cell phone into thinking that it the only active cellular tower to connect with in the area. The phones will then connect to the "fake tower" and the spy can listen in on conversations, or determine a person's location.
But don't let the term "tower" fool you. The bad guys don't have to spend money to build an actual tower -- the surveillance equipment can fit inside a car, or as one investigator told TheBlaze, can be hidden in copy machines or other standard office equipment.
"They are normally the size of a small suitcase, and mobile," Bruner told TheBlaze. "What they do is they get in between a target phone and and a cell tower and they can extract the IMSI information -- that's International Mobile Subscriber Information -- and phone number to try and locate a phone."
Bruner said if the interceptor is sophisticated enough, it can also extract text data from the phone, as well.
"We've had 17 reports across America so far, in various cities," Bruner said. In recent months, the ESD America detection team has located interceptors in California, Nevada, Arizona, Washington State, Colorado, Texas, New York and many more.
He said one of the most unexpected places they found a fake tower: Boise, Idaho.
Bruner noted in each of these locations there may be secret government facilities being targeted, illegal corporate spying taking place, or merely nosy neighbors dipping into unprotected conversations.
"It really could be all of the above, you know there are good guys who use cell site simulators, they are commonly referred to as Stingrays," Bruner explained. TheBlaze has also covered cases where police in certain cities have obtained warrants to use these spy-like devices to track criminals, but in most cases they also snatch up loads of data from innocent civilians during those sweeps, which is why privacy advocates disagree with widespread use of the "fake towers."
Bruner explained if the company does detect signals from any of the cell site simulators during their "Tin Foil Hat Road Trip," they will report the incidents to federal authorities.
"We'll report the information to the FCC so they can coordinate with local law enforcement in the area to see if they are using the equipment, but what we're really concerned about are the ones who are here illegally."
To learn more about ESD America's "Tin Foil Hat Roadtrip," watch Elizabeth Kreft's exclusive interview with Buzz Bruner, below, and visit their Indiegogo site, here.
For a refresher on all the lingo associated with these tracking devices, used by law enforcement or law breakers, check out TheBlaze's exclusive breakdown of the key words every privacy-minded American should know.
Follow Elizabeth Kreft (@elizabethakreft) on Twitter