According to a report in the Izvestia newspaper, one of Russia’s most widely read news publications, the Moscow Metro Police have just announced a plan to install ‘equipment’ at all subway stations in the city, which are capable of reading everything on a mobile phone’s SIM card from a distance of about twenty feet. Izvestia goes on to explain that the machines will be used alongside time stamped CCTV cameras so that police can track mobile devices which have been reported as stolen. The system will alert the cops as soon as it located a stolen SIM device passing by one of its trackers.
Now you might think such a measure would be illegal (even Russia has some data protection laws), but apparently the cops can get away with it due to a loophole. While tracking people is illegal without a warrant, it’s not illegal to track property that belongs to someone else – which means that the carrier-owned SIM card in your phone is fair game for the Russian cops.
Izvestia doesn’t reveal the exact nature of the technology that Moscow’s Metro police will be using to track mobile phones, but Ars Technica suggests that the device is most likely to be something known as an “IMSI catcher,” or “Stingray”, which works by tricking SIMs into thinking its a legitimate mobile phone tower, thereby allowing it to read its unique International Mobile Subscriber Identity code, a unique 15-digit number used to distinguish each SIM card in existence. These devices, which have been around for a number of years now, are said to be one of the easiest ways of tracking phone calls being made in a given area, and are believed to be capable of intercepting calls as well.
If Russia’s cops were genuinely interested in tracking stolen mobile phones and nothing else, this plan probably wouldn’t be such a bad thing. But given that Russia is, well, Russia, the plans have come under immediate suspicion from a number of privacy activists.
Izvestia states that “According to experts, the devices can be used more widely to follow all passengers without exception,” and that claim is sure to worry anyone who gives a damn about their digital privacy.
Speaking to ARS Technica, Privacy International’s Eric King said that the deployment of IMSI catchers is neither “proportionate nor necessary” for the purpose of recovering stolen phones, which raises questions about the authorities’ real motivations.
These doubts are supported by Alexander Ivanchenko, executive director of the Russian Security Industry Association, who told Izvestia that such a system would be hugely expensive to setup and maintain, especially when there are far cheaper anti-theft technologies available – in the US, if you lose your phone all you have to do is call the operator and the device will immediately be blocked, and will be inoperable even if the SIM card is replaced.