Using devices mounted on aircraft flying high overhead, the federal government is gathering data from the mobile phones of thousands of innocent Americans in “a high-tech hunt for criminal suspects,” according to a report in The Wall Street Journal.
The program, run by the Justice Department’s U.S. Marshals Service since about 2007, operates Cessna aircraft equipped with devices that mimic the cellphone towers of large telecommunications firms and trick cellphones into reporting their unique registration information, reported the newspaper, citing people familiar with the operations.
The program operates from at least five metropolitan-area airports, and the flying range of the planes covers most of the population. The airports were not identified in the Journal story.
The technology is aimed at locating cellphones linked to people under investigation by the government, including fugitives and drug dealers, but it collects information on cellphones belonging to individuals who are not criminal suspects, said people familiar with the program. The device determines which phones belong to suspects and “lets go” of the non-suspect phone.
Calling it “a dragnet surveillance program,” Christopher Soghoian, chief technologist at the American Civil Liberties Union, said: “It’s inexcusable, and it’s likely — to the extent judges are authorizing it — they have no idea of the scale of it.”
The technology used in the planes are 2-foot-square devices that can scoop the identifying information and general location from tens of thousands of cellphones in a single flight. The paper’s sources wouldn’t discuss the frequency or duration of the flights but said they occur on a regular basis.
A Justice Department official neither would confirm nor deny the existence of the program, saying that discussion of such matters would allow criminal suspects or foreign powers to determine America’s surveillance capabilities. The official said Justice Department agencies comply with federal law, including by seeking court approval.
The program is similar to a National Security Agency program that collects millions of Americans’ phone records, in that it scoops up large volumes of data to find a single person or a few people, the Journal reports. The government has justified the NSA phone records collection program as a minimally invasive way to hunt terrorists.
Some of the devices on the Cessnas are known to law enforcement officials as “dirtboxes” because of the initials of the Boeing Co. subsidiary that produces them — Digital Receiver Technology Inc.
Cellphones are programmed to connect automatically to the strongest cell tower signal. The device used by the Marshals Service falsely identifies itself as having the closest, strongest signal, thus forcing all phones that can detect its signal to send in their unique registration information.
Having encryption on a phone, such as that on Apple Inc.’s iPhone 6, does not defeat the process.
Phone companies are cut out in the search for suspects. Law enforcement has found that asking a company for cell tower information to help locate a suspect can be slow and inaccurate. This program allows the government to get that information.
People familiar with the program told the Journal that they do get court orders to search for phones, but it isn’t clear whether those orders describe the methods used because the orders are sealed.