Watch CBS News

Rogue 'Cell Towers' Can Intercept Your Data; At Least One Found In Chicago

By John Dodge

CHICAGO (CBS) -- So-called rogue cell phone towers, the type that can intercept your mobile calls and data, are cropping up all over the United States, including here in Chicago, according to a company that specializes in developing highly secure mobile phones.

More cell phone users, who fear their information could be at risk, are turning to high-end secure mobile devices. As a result, it is become easier for them to detect the presence of these interceptor devices.

Fake Cell Tower Alert
A user gets an alert that a "cell tower" nearby may be a threat. (Credit: ESD)

The origin of these devices that disguise themselves as cell phone towers is not known.

CBS 2 security analyst Ross Rice, a former FBI agent, said it's likely being used illegally.

"I doubt that they are installed by law enforcement as they require a warrant to intercept conversations or data and since the cell providers are ordered by the court to cooperate with the intercept, there really would be no need for this," Rice said.

"Most likely, they are installed and operated by hackers, trying to steal personal identification and passwords."

Les Goldsmith, the CEO of ESD America, which makes secure cell phones, said law enforcement, with a warrant, can use interceptor devices if they need information in real time, or if they don't want a cellular network to know what they are tracking.

These devices don't look like a tower, but are rather electronic boxes and laptops that trick a regular phone that it's part of an actual cellular network.

How did ESD customers discover these interceptor devices?

ESD America's cellphones protect users data, phone calls and text. The phone looks like a typical Android phone, but the inside includes encryption algorithms developed by a German company, GSMK, that protects the phone from intercepts.

ESD has asked them to report when their devices detect a threat.

As a result, the company recently published a map showing 19 such eavesdropping devices across the country, including at least one in Chicago.

ESD says it is able to verify each customer's report.

ESD says on its Facebook page that there are likely many, many more so-called "phony towers."

"The more phones we have out there, the more we will see," said Goldsmith.

The company's top of the line GSMK Cryptophone, the CP500, has a firewall that constantly monitors all activity on the phone.

The ESD Cryptophone 500. (Credit: ESD America)

When a user gets an alert that a cell tower has no neighboring towers--legitimate towers from phone companies form a network--it indicates the "cell tower" is potentially a danger to the user's security.

(Credit: ESD America)

ESD can only rely on location information of the reported interceptors based on the user's report. In the case of the Chicago interceptor, the user simply reported it as near the airport, but didn't specify whether it was Midway or O'Hare.

The top of the line ESD phone costs around $3,500. Goldsmith said they do a lot of business with governments, but are selling more privately, including about 200 units today alone.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.