Spy games turn real as eavesdropping technology spreads

Photo: Emin Ozkan, stock.XCHNG

When is the last time you used your mobile phone? Did you say anything important? Are you sure no one else was listening? There are rising concerns in the Czech Republic about the increasingly common use of devices that can intercept your daily mobile communication. Masha Volynsky has more.

Photo: Emin Ozkan,  stock.XCHNG
It may sound like something out of the TV series The Wire, but a small box, known in the Czech Republic as Agáta, may be listening in on your mobile phone calls at any moment. Agáta, or IMSI Catcher, is essentially an eavesdropping device that, by using relatively simple hardware, can track phone calls and SMS messages coming in and out of mobile phones in a specific radius.

Jan Valos, a radio frequency engineer and hacker explains how an IMSI Catcher works once it is connected to a computer:

“It sends out a signal that is basically like the one coming from a cellular phone base station, which is why a mobile phone would voluntarily connect to it. If someone uses the device wisely and carefully, and does not stay in one place for too long, it is practically impossible to catch them.”

The use of Agátas is becoming increasingly widespread in the Czech Republic. Although their functioning is practically undetectable to the users of phones being tracked, they can sometimes be intercepted by a police scanner.

The head of Czech Criminal Police unit for wiretapping, Tomáš Almer, confirmed they have been registering more and more uses of Agátas around the country. But no one has yet been caught for using an IMSI Catcher and it has not been determined how many Agátas are operating in the Czech Republic.

Andor Šándor,  photo: Czech Television
The Czech police sometimes use similar wiretapping devices during investigations, but they are required by law to obtain a court-sanctioned warrant. Most likely, though, there are not many Agátas in their possession, given their exorbitant pricing which can be up to 20 million Czech crowns. For private persons, it is illegal in the Czech Republic to turn an IMSI catcher on, but there are no laws prohibiting their purchase.

Former head of the Czech Military Intelligence Agency and a security analyst Andor Šándor underscored the danger of the widespread sale of Agátas:

"It’s been a known fact for a few years now that some companies do sell these devices. But if their use will not be in any way regulated, and access to these devices will not be in any way controlled, then a regular citizen can do absolutely nothing. The only way people can safeguard themselves is if they reveal only the necessary information during their mobile communication. But, obviously that goes against normal behavior of free persons."

At this point it is also becoming harder to trace who produces Agátas. Although an IMSI catcher was originally patented by a German company Rohde and Schwarz, it has been hard to maintain exclusivity because of its generic nature. This year, Court of Appeal of England and Wales even invalidated the patent for reasons of obviousness.

Although Czech authorities are not willing to speculate on the subject, Mr. Šándor claims that the most likely private users of Agátas are security firms or rival businesses, or even companies trying to win high-stakes tenders. But there is no way to regulate the activities of either one of those groups. And there have been fears that some extortionist gangs may use this technology for nefarious purposes. So far, neither the police nor the lawmakers are doing anything to protect Czech residents from being unknowingly monitored.