The Wall Street Journal is reporting that the Department of Justice is “scooping up” data from your mobile phones using devices installed in airplanes that impersonate cell phone towers. People familiar with the program tell the Journal that the U.S. Marshall’s service program operates Cessna aircraft from “at least five metropolitan-area airports” covering most of the U.S. population. The operation is intended to assist in the hunt for criminals but also inadvertently collects information from innocent American citizens. Gee, that sounds familiar.
The devices are known as “dirtboxes” and “trick” cell phones into reporting unique and identifying registration information normally transmitted to legitimate cell towers.
The technology in the two-foot-square device enables investigators to scoop data from tens of thousands of cellphones in a single flight, collecting their identifying information and general location, these people said.
People with knowledge of the program wouldn’t discuss the frequency or duration of such flights, but said they take place on a regular basis.
Naturally, the Justice Department could not confirm the existence of such a program, saying the topic would compromise the project and undermine their surveillance program on criminal suspects and foreign governments.
The technology is aimed at locating cellphones linked to individuals under investigation by the government, including fugitives and drug dealers, but it collects information on cellphones belonging to people who aren’t criminal suspects, these people said. They said the device determines which phones belong to suspects and “lets go” of the non-suspect phones.
The snooping device can also interrupt phone calls but authorities say they have tried to modify the software so the tower doesn’t interfere with something really important, like a 911 call.
One notable aspect of the program is that it entirely removes the cell phone companies from the surveillance mix. And there are obviously questions about the legality of this massive snoopfest.
Within the Marshals Service, some have questioned the legality of such operations and the internal safeguards, these people said. They say scooping up of large volumes of information, even for a short period, may not be properly understood by judges who approve requests for the government to locate a suspect’s phone.
In case you were wondering if yet another wholesale dragnet on the American public’s digital data is legal, wonder no more. Writes the Journal, “it is unclear how closely the Justice Department oversees the program. ‘What is done on U.S. soil is completely legal,’ said one person familiar with the program. ‘Whether it should be done is a separate question.’ ”