The Next Generation of Cell-Site Simulators is Here. Here’s What We Know.

Deeplinks 2024-06-12


Dozens of policing agencies are currently using cell-site simulators (CSS) by Jacobs Technology and its Engineering Integration Group (EIG), according to newly-available documents on how that company provides CSS capabilities to local law enforcement. 

A proposal document from Jacobs Technology, provided to the Massachusetts State Police (MSP) and first spotted by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism (BINJ), outlines elements of the company’s CSS services, which include discreet integration of the CSS system into a Chevrolet Silverado and lifetime technical support. The proposal document is part of a winning bid Jacobs submitted to MSP earlier this year for a nearly $1-million contract to provide CSS services, representing the latest customer for one of the largest providers of CSS equipment.

An image of the Jacobs CSS system as integrated into a Chevrolet Silverado for the Virginia State Police.

An image of the Jacobs CSS system as integrated into a Chevrolet Silverado for the Virginia State Police. Source: 2024 Jacobs Proposal Response

The proposal document from Jacobs provides some of the most comprehensive information about modern CSS that the public has had access to in years. It confirms that law enforcement has access to CSS capable of operating on 5G as well as older cellular standards. It also gives us our first look at modern CSS hardware. The Jacobs system runs on at least nine software-defined radios that simulate cellular network protocols on multiple frequencies and can also gather wifi intelligence. As these documents describe, these CSS are meant to be concealed within a common vehicle. Antennas are hidden under a false roof so nothing can be seen outside the vehicles, which is a shift from the more visible antennas and cargo van-sized deployments we’ve seen before.  The system also comes with a TRACHEA2+ and JUGULAR2+ for direction finding and mobile direction finding. 

The Jacobs 5G CSS base station system.

The Jacobs 5G CSS base station system. Source: 2024 Jacobs Proposal Response

CSS, also known as IMSI catchers, are among law enforcement’s most closely-guarded secret surveillance tools. They act like real cell phone towers, “tricking” mobile devices into connecting to them, designed to intercept the information that phones send and receive, like the location of the user and metadata for phone calls, text messages, and other app traffic. CSS are highly invasive and used discreetly. In the past, law enforcement used a technique called “parallel construction”—collecting evidence in a different way to reach an existing conclusion in order to avoid disclosing how law enforcement originally collected it—to circumvent public disclosure of location findings made through CSS. In Massachusetts, agencies are expected to get a warrant before conducting any cell-based location tracking. The City of Boston is also known to own a CSS. 

This technology is like a dragging fishing net, rather than a focused single hook in the water. Every phone in the vicinity connects with the device; even people completely unrelated to an investigation get wrapped up in the surveillance. CSS, like other surveillance technologies, subjects civilians to widespread data collection, even those who have not been involved with a crime, and has been used against protestors and other protected groups, undermining their civil liberties. Their adoption should require public disclosure, but this rarely occurs. These new records provide insight into the continued adoption of this technology. It remains unclear whether MSP has policies to govern its use. CSS may also interfere with


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Beryl Lipton, Cooper Quintin

Date tagged:

06/12/2024, 20:33

Date published:

06/12/2024, 16:40