Police State: US Justice Department Spies On American Cellphones From Planes With ‘Dirtboxes’

The Department of Justice's U.S. Marshals Service division has reportedly been employing fake cellphone towers on planes in an effort to stay one step ahead of criminals such as drug dealers and terrorist organizations operating in the United States. Unfortunately for law abiding citizens and privacy advocates at large, the fake cell signals don't just zero in on the criminal that's being sought by law enforcement officials, at least not at first, and instead gathers data from up to tens of thousands of people during each flight.

These spy planes are equipped with so-called "dirtboxes," which are named after the initials of the Boeing Co. subsidiary that produces them (Digital Recovery Technology Inc., or DRT). Citing people familiar with the program, The Wall Street Journal says the dirtboxes mimic cellphone towers and trick phones into thinking they're beaming out the closest, strongest cellular signal. Once a phone is connected to a dirtbox, registration information and other details are pulled from the device. Even text messages and phone records are plucked.

Plane Wi-Fi Signal

In theory, non-suspects are let go by dropboxes so that officials can focus on gathering information solely from the person or people they're trying to track, like a terrorist that might be planning to bomb a facility, for example. However, the problem from a privacy perspective is that when these planes fly over densely populated areas, tens of thousands of people are unknowingly having their phones scanned by a spy device. To make matters worse, it's not known what steps the Marshals Service is taking to ensure data collected by innocent bystanders isn't stored for future examination.

Even though the technology is intended to track suspected criminals, as you an imagine, not everyone is happy with the approach. Christopher Soghoian, chief technologist at the American Civil Liberties Union (ALCU) called it "a dragnet surveillance program," adding that the judges who authorize the warrants for these sweeps probably are clueless to the extent they're being used.

"Maybe it's worth violating privacy of hundreds of people to catch a suspect, but is it worth thousands or tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of peoples' privacy?," Soghoian poses.

The first part of Soghoian's comment refers to lower-grade devices called Stingrays, which the FBI has been known to use in cars for the same purpose as dirtboxes. However, the range of Stingray devices is limited by comparison and might only connect with hundreds of cellphones instead of tens of thousands.

Welcome to the new order, folks.