CIA Aided U.S. Marshals Service's Airborne Cell Phone Snooping Program

It was revealed several months ago that the U.S. Marshal Service secretly uses spy planes equipped with devices that mimic cell towers to scan for and harvest cellphone information on a mass scale. Now it's being reported that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) played a key role in helping the Justice Department develop the technology that's capable of scanning data from thousands of cellphones at a time.

Let's back up a moment. As originally reported by a number of news outlets, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was clueless of the spy program that the Department of Justice (DoJ) won't even admit exists, at least not formally. However, the DoJ did defend the legality of the program that doesn't officially exist by saying the Marshal Service doesn't keep a database of cellphone data belonging to everyday, law abiding citizens -- it's only interested in data by terrorists and others people with ill intentions.

Plane Wi-Fi

The way data is collected is by flying spy planes equipped with so-called "dirtboxes," the devices that mimic cell towers, over densely populated areas. These dirtboxes trick phones into thinking it has the strongest and closest signal, ensuring that all phones in the area connect to it. Once that happens, the dirtboxes are able to pull data from the phones, though they don't discern between a specific target and the potentially thousands of others in the area.

This technology was jointly developed by the CIA and Marshals Service, and is the same technology that's used to track terrorists and intelligence targets overseas, The Wall Street Journal reports. What's interesting -- and frightening, from a privacy perspective -- is how widespread and efficient the program is. Planes flying from just five cities cover most of the U.S. population.

The joint effort was kicked off around 10 years ago, with $100 million poured into research and development. Civil liberties group worry that the program amounts to a digital dragnet of phones belonging to innocent Americans, but according to the Justice Department, the techniques used are "carried out consistent with federal law, and are subject to court approval."