An investigation by WRC-TV found dozens of potential cell phone spying devices throughout Washington, D.C., Maryland and Northern Virginia.
The technology is often the size of a suitcase and can be placed anywhere as a means to track cell phones and intercept calls, the report stated.
"While you might not be a target yourself, you may live next to someone who is. You could still get caught up," Aaron Turner, a leading mobile security expert, told the TV station.
The devices are sometimes called by the brand name StingRay, which mimics a cell phone tower and tricks a phone into connecting with it.
Turner recently rode with the TV stations’ investigative team around the capital to hunt for the devices. If you live in or near Washington, your phone has probably been tracked at some point, he said.
What are the safety risks?
A recent Department of Homeland Security report called the spy devices a growing problem that has safety risks. For example, the devices could prevent connected phones from making 911 calls.
According to the report, the devices were found in Washington near the Trump International Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue and near the 14th Street bridge into Crystal City. Devices were also detected on K Street, a corridor popular with lobbyists.
"It looks like they don't consider us to be interesting, so they've dropped us," Turner said while showing how the devices were connecting to one of his phones. Every cell phone has a unique identifying number, and the "catcher" technology can connect to thousands of phones at the same time.
"Absolutely. That's a worry," D.C. Councilwoman Mary Cheh, a Democrat, told the TV station. She added that the technology should be a concern for anyone who lives and works in Washington.
In just a few hours, the TV crew investigation detected 40 potential locations where the spy devices appeared to be operating.
"I suppose if you spent more time you'd find even more," Cheh said. "I have bad news for the public: Our privacy isn't what it once was."
Are foreign governments using this in the U.S.?
While travelling near an area of D.C. lined with embassies, the news crew was picked up several times by the technology, the report stated.
"They're doing the interrogation, or [checking] who we are, and then the white bar represents when they release us," Turner said, while using technology that can detect the devices.
Near the Russian Embassy, the phones appeared to remain connected to a fake tower for a long time, the report stated. The cell phones were also being monitored near the embassies for Romania and Turkey.
All of those countries use the phone catcher technology, Turner said.
"You know governments do this to each other all the time and laws-schmaws," Cheh said.