Government Spy Program Uses Airplanes To Collect Phone Data

The US Justice Department has been reportedly using special electronic devices on airplanes to simulate phone towers in order to collect user data from unsuspecting Americans.


Photo: Ivan Pavlov / Shutterstock

This program was originally created to catch criminals, but it collects information from innocent citizens as well, as reported by the Wall Street Journal. The allegations suggest that the government has used the Cessna aircraft fitted with a “dirtbox” device for seven years. This device mimics cellphone towers and collects information, such as location data and unique IDs of users.

The program is used by US Marshals. The dirtboxes deployed in the process automatically trigger phones to switch over to their signals, even if there’s a real tower in the vicinity. Sources say that the government “lets go” of the data once they determine that a particular phone is not owned by a suspect, but the meaning of the term is unclear.

The program resembles the dragnet approach of the NSA for collecting data when they track terrorists. The airplanes operate from no less than five urban airports, allowing a range that covers most of the American population.

Such indiscriminate collection of data would allow the marshals to work on criminal investigation cases without having to seek a court order to request data from phone companies. The Justice Department did not support or oppose the existence of the program.

“Discussion of sensitive law enforcement equipment and techniques would allow criminal defendants, criminal enterprises or foreign powers to determine our capabilities and limitations in this area. In deploying any such equipment or tactics our federal law enforcement agencies comply with federal law, including by seeking court approval.”

The legal foundation of this program is unclear. While it is not a counterterrorism or national security related action, it certainly breaches the privacy of innocent people. The government modified the devices so that they could not interfere with 911 emergency calls.

The US officials have regularly denied the fact that the NSA collects bulk phone data, but they often mention the term, “under this program,” which leads to a suspicion that other official programs also collect user data.

The Working of Dirtbox

Cellphones register their locations with phone towers every couple of minutes, even if they don’t make a call. The dirtbox intercepts these signals to get the unique phone registration information, and this works even with the phones that have inbuilt encryption, such as the new iPhone 6. With this information, the device can determine the phone location and manipulate it by jamming its signal. It can also extract photos and text messages from the phone.

A former FBI agent Michael German feels that the government does not care about the violation of American rights as long as nobody knows about these programs. The excessive secrecy of the government’s surveillance programs is a problem that keeps things away 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.”

He said that the program is kept secret so that the innocent Americans whose information is being collected would not complain.

The revelation might create a wedge between the justice department and mobile carriers. Both parties have enjoyed cordial relationships in the recent past, unlike tech companies such as Apple.