In the wake of the U.S. Patriot Acts and the Edward Snowden revelations, new details about surveillance technologies rarely seem surprising. Many have grown accustomed to Constitution-violating “sneak and peak” practices, biometrics-creep, and sensors that make anything monitor-able, no matter how large or small. Despite this, surveillance studies scholars have yet to discuss a gadget of growing concern – an eavesdropping and interception technology known as a cell site simulator or IMSI catcher. Known as a “man in the middle” device, an IMSI (International Mobile Subscriber Identity) catcher simulates a cell phone base station and is able to lock on to mobile phones in a given vicinity, intercept data from and/or remotely reconfigure or operate them. Cell site simulators first hit the global market during the early 1990s and since then have been used by military units, state agencies, law enforcers, spies, hackers, and criminal organizations. Vernacularly referred to as Stingrays or dirtboxes, the technology was relatively secret until recently, since organizations have used these devices surreptitiously and some manufacturers require their clients to sign non-disclosure agreements, forbidding public discussion of the technology’s use or operation. Over the past decade, a series of US lawsuits were filed in connection with IMSI catcher use and civil rights organizations and journalists began to ask questions. Hackers also began to figure out how to detect and build their own devices. The cell site simulator is now part of a lawful interception industry that is expected to be worth $1.3 billion by 2019, up from $251 million in 2014. In short, cell phone eavesdropping could become as common as cell phone use.
Building on scholarly research on the history and philosophy of communication and surveillance, this project details the cell site simulator’s historical emergence by pointing to its manufacturers and divergent uses in different parts of the world. The project also offers a discussion of critical issues elicited by the cell site simulator’s globalization and use, addressing its relation to the politics of cynicism, paternalism, and repression.