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Foreign spies have apparently been intercepting cellphone calls in D.C.

The Department of Homeland Security has acknowledged in a private letter to Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) that it has detected the use of special devices to intercept phone calls and messages in Washington, D.C., likely by foreign spies, The Associated Press reports. The devices, which can cost as little as $1,000 and be as small as a cellphone, work by tricking victims' mobile devices into thinking they are connecting to a cellphone tower. "More sophisticated versions can eavesdrop on calls by forcing phones to step down to older, unencrypted 2G wireless technology," AP writes. "Some attempt to plant malware."

The use of these devices, known colloquially as "stingrays," is common in capital cities around the world (as well as in American police departments). Every embassy "worth their salt" has such a tower, claimed the president of the mobile security consultancy Integricell, Aaron Turner. Because foreign embassies operate on sovereign soil, it is extremely difficult to police the use of such devices by foreign nationals.

The DHS's acknowledgement of the devices' presence in Washington is a first, as well as potentially the admission of a national security threat due to the members of the military, NSA, CIA, and FBI that work in and around Washington. "The surveillance-savvy among them encrypt their phone and data communications and employ electronic countermeasures," AP writes. "But unsuspecting citizens could fall prey." Read the full investigation here.