Tags: NSA/Surveillance | cellphones | fake towers | Marshals Service | dirtbox | Stingray

WSJ: Feds Grab Data on 'Thousands of Cellphones' in Criminal Hunt

Friday, 14 November 2014 08:14 AM

The Justice Department is conducting a secret "dragnet" spying program on thousands of innocent Americans using fake cellphone towers on small airplanes in a hunt for criminal suspects, The Wall Street Journal reported.

The U.S. Marshals Service program flies Cessna aircraft from at least five metropolitan-area airports, which travel in patterns covering a wide swath of the United States, sources told the newspaper.

The planes are equipped with two-foot-square tracking devices, which are called "dirtboxes" or Stingrays, that mimic cell towers of large telecommunications firms and trick cellphones into reporting their registration information.

The technology enables investigators to scoop data from tens of thousands of cellphones in a single flight, collecting their identifying information and general location, the Journal said.

Once a tracker has detected a suspect's phone, the plane moves to another location in order to ascertain the suspect's location to within about 10 feet of their position, or within a specific room in a building.

While detecting suspects, however, the trackers on each flight also pick up information on the whereabouts of tens of thousands of unwitting Americans, the Journal reported.

The program, launched in 2007, is the latest case of mass spying on Americans by the government while searching for information on a small number of potential perpetrators.

The National Security Agency collected phone and Internet data on millions of people until the controversial program was exposed by fugitive NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

With cellphones being programmed to connect automatically to the strongest cell tower signal, the devices used by the Marshals Service make cellphones incorrectly read that signal as the best and give their unique registration information to the tracker, the Journal noted.

Even encrypted phones, such as Apple's iPhone 6, are fooled by the devices, the Journal said.

Although the trackers are searching for criminals under investigation by the government, such as fugitives and drug dealers, they also collect data on average Americans as well.

But sources told the paper that each dirtbox or Stingray "lets go" of the nonsuspect phones.

Christopher Soghoian, chief technologist at the American Civil Liberties Union, slammed what he called "a dragnet surveillance program."

"It's inexcusable and it's likely — to the extent judges are authorizing it — [that] they have no idea of the scale of it,"  Soghoian said.

"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?" he asked.

The program allows the Marshals Service to get information on suspects without having to ask phone companies for permission, although the report says the government first gets court orders to search for phones. It is not known whether the exact nature of the searches are explained in the request.

A federal appeals court ruled earlier this year that mass collection of data by federal and state investigators, and the stockpiling of the data, violated of the Constitution, according to the newspaper.

The name "dirtbox" came from the acronym of the company making the device, DRT, for Digital Receiver Technology Inc., the Journal said, citing sources.

A Justice Department official, who refused to confirm or deny the program, told the Journal that revealing any information would allow criminal suspects or foreign powers to uncover U.S. surveillance capabilities. But he pointed out the program complies with federal law by seeking court approval for the searches.

"What is done on U.S. soil is completely legal," said one person familiar with the program. "Whether it should be done is a separate question."

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The Justice Department is conducting a secret "dragnet" spying program on thousands of innocent Americans using fake cellphone towers on small airplanes in a hunt for criminal suspects, The Wall Street Journal reported.
cellphones, fake towers, Marshals Service, dirtbox, Stingray
Friday, 14 November 2014 08:14 AM
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