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US Marshals Service reportedly fitting aircraft with ‘dirtboxes’ that interrogate phones on ground for identity and location
The US justice department is reportedly using electronic equipment on aircraft to simulate cellphone towers so it can collect phone location and identifying information on a mass scale from users on the ground below.
The allegations, reported in the Wall Street Journal late on Thursday, suggest that the US Marshals Service has for seven years flown Cessna aircraft outfitted with “dirtbox” devices that mimic cellular towers, permitting the collection of thousands of unique IDs and location data from users.
According to the Journal the planes operate from at least five metropolitan airports, permitting a “flying range covering most of the US population”.
The reportedly indiscriminate collection would permit the marshals and potentially other justice department agencies to avoid having to seek records from the phone companies themselves, especially in criminal investigations where a court order may be required.
Michael German, a former FBI agent now with New York University Law School, said: “The government’s attitude seems to be if it can, it should, without regard to the violation of Americans’ rights, so long as nobody knows. The overriding problem is the excessive secrecy that hides the government’s ever-expanding surveillance programs from public accountability.
“This isn’t about tipping off criminals. Every criminal or terrorist I ever worked undercover against knew they were criminals and terrorists, and therefore that there was probable cause to believe they were criminals and terrorists, so the government could get warrants to listen to their calls or search their homes.”
The program cuts out phone companies as an intermediary in searching for suspects. Rather than asking a company for cell-tower information to help locate a suspect, which law enforcement has criticized as slow and inaccurate, the government can now get that information itself.
Also, I doubt that they are installing equipment that can gather data from 35 thousand feet below the plane as well.
But well before the Times published this story, or even knew about it, an AT&T technician in California discovered something that troubled him greatly.
Mark Klein was working at AT&T's Geary Street switching facility in downtown San Francisco in 2002 when he received an email saying that someone from the NSA was coming to the office to do business. Klein thought this was odd, because he knew that the NSA was not supposed to look at US communications; the switching facility was one of many where trillions of US communications passed through each year.
They are using small Cessna aircraft, which fly at relatively low altitude.