Update: This story has been edited to remove an assertion that ESD America did not inform authorities about its discovery of the mystery towers, when in fact it had.
We all like a good conspiracy theory, and in an era of rightful paranoia about our government spying on us, some stories just beg to be taken hook, line and sinker. That might be the case of the mystery cell phone towers.
First of all, they are not actually towers; they are interceptors, or IMSI Catchers, and they are about the size of a suitcase. These devices are basically just computers with an antenna and sometimes called "StingRays," since there is a popular brand sold under that name. The EFF has called StingRays "The Biggest Technological Threat to Cell Phone Privacy You Don't Know About."
The FBI, naturally, feels differently about StingRays. It has used them for years to nab criminals and keeps very quiet about their use. That explains a Daily Caller story that said the FBI told local law enforcement to keep their collective mouths shut about finding StingRays.
And The Hill, another Washington, D.C. publication, said that StingRays have been in use since at least 1995 and are currently deployed by at least 43 agencies in 18 states.
Then it dawned on me. We had a rash of stories on these "mystery towers," and it seemed everywhere I turned, there was Les Goldsmith, the CEO of ESD America, the company that took a stock Galaxy S III and turned it into a hardened phone with numerous exploits removed and all kinds of security added. His phones had detected the StingRays since they display far more information than a standard cell phone.
Goldsmith was in the Popular Science article that started this all. He spoke to VentureBeat and The Blaze. ESD consultants also accompanied CNBC on a ride around Washington, D.C. to discuss their findings.
That sure worked out nicely for ESD America, didn't it? They show up in a lot of Google searches these days.
In hindsight, the PopSci article reads like one big advertisement for ESD's CryptoPhone 500. I can't be too judgmental about that; I've committed that sin a few times myself. But it does show why there is a saying that some stories are just too good to check.
In the end, I think what happened is a company with an expensive product to sell got itself a little attention by hitting us right in our greatest fear, and in the process drew a ton of unwanted attention to something law enforcement wanted kept quiet. And we in the press got played.