NEWS ANALYSIS: Politicians, diplomats and ordinary citizens as well got another reminder on Saturday to never, ever use their mobile telephones to communicate sensitive information. Newspaper Aftenposten’s disclosure of highly advanced spying equipment, believed to be placed in and around central Oslo, spread new fears of how determined governments, criminal organizations or business interests will use espionage to achieve their goals.
Prime Minister Erna Solberg and her predecessor who now leads NATO, Jens Stoltenberg, have stated publicly that they are always careful about how they use their mobile phones. Other Norwegian officials are expected to be as well, not least after allegations last year that US intelligence officials had even tapped German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s mobile phone. Solberg called such spying “completely unacceptable” shortly after her election last fall, adding that “I don’t think that allies or friends should spy on each other.”
Since then, political tensions with Russia have soared, a diplomatic freeze continues between Norway and China and several Norwegian companies have been the targets of highly sophisticated hacking and espionage attempts. According to Aftenposten, Oslo’s downtown is now subject to so-called “false base stations” that can track the movements of anyone with a mobile phone. The small, secret stations can also allow their operators to listen in on conversations, read text messages and install spy programs that turn on a microphone, which can turn the mobile phone into a device allowing the operators to also listen in on conversations within a room. There’s a reason why security precautions at embassies and many government offices, for example, demand that people leave their mobile phones at the door.
Ringing Norway’s center of power
No one knows who or what is behind the stations, also known as “IMSI catchers” because they literally can “catch” the International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI) number assigned to the phone that identifies its user. Aftenposten and two highly specialized security firms believe, after a two-month probe, that the false stations exist in an area of Oslo that’s home to government ministries, the Parliament, the central bank, the courts, the Royal Palace and myriad foreign embassies.
Aftenposten reporters used a German-produced CryptoPhone 500 for two months this fall to chart suspicious mobile activity in the core of Norway’s capital. They then cooperated with the two security firms, Aiger Grup and CEPIA Technologies, to track the activity and localize the false base stations that had managed to latch onto the CryptoPhone before legal base stations had.
The suspected spying equipment, which sports no large antennas and can reportedly fit into a suitcase, is believed to have been placed at various strategic locations ringing downtown. They ranged from the military area around the Akershus Fortress that now also houses the Office of the Prime Minister, to both ends of Parkveien, the street running behind the Royal Palace that’s home to the prime minister’s residence and both the Israeli and American embassies among many others. Aftenposten and its high-tech advisers believe one of the false base stations is located at the corner of Parkveien and Henrik Ibsens gate, where the US Embassy is located and also the intersection from which it was accused of conducting illegal surveillance until it was reported by TV2 in 2010 and set off a scandal that led to a justice ministry investigation.
Search is on
In Norway, only the police, the police intelligence unit PST and the national security authority NSM (Nasjonal sikkerhetsmyndighet) are legally allowed to use such equipment. None said the equipment belonged to them and Aftenposten claimed it had no reason to believe Norwegian authorities are behind the false base stations. On Friday, shortly after receiving and being questioned about the results of Aftenposten’s probe, NSM officials were out searching for the equipment downtown.
“We take this very seriously,” Hans Christian Pretorius, a director at NSM, told Aftenposten. He confirmed NSM had also registered signals from IMSI catchers but that it was “too early” to say how many or where they were.
Arne Christian Hougstøyl of PST (Politiets sikkerhetstjeneste), which characterizes espionage activity in Norway as “high,” called Aftenposten’s findings “interesting” if not necessarily surprising. “There are many who are intent on gaining access to others’ mobile traffic,” he said, adding that “foreign intelligence agencies” have the capacity to attempt such access.
He said there was “no point for PST to run around and find the equipment itself,” claiming it was more important to keep working on preventative measures that will reduce Norwegians’ vulnerability to it.
“We need to get the Norwegian people to understand that if you have a secret, don’t talk about it on open phone lines.” Hougstøyl said.