You know that airplane flying overhead? The Wall Street Journal reports it might be equipped with a fake communications tower designed to eavesdrop on your phone conversations. Deployed by the Justice Department, the secretive project is meant to be a “high-tech hunt for criminal suspects,” though the mobile towers are apparently collecting data from thousands of innocent U.S. citizens.
The program allegedly became functional in 2007, and has a flying range capable of covering most of the U.S. population, with a particular focus on at least five metropolitan-area airports. (My guess would be New York City, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago and Dallas, though it sounds like the program, which sources say uses unassuming Cessnas, covers the entire lower 48 states). The planes are said to be equipped with “dirtboxes” that trick cellphones into reporting unique registration information.
Sources closes to the program said these recon flights take place on a regular basis, and are capable of collecting a phone’s location down to the room, even if your device is encrypted. It’s unclear where the information goes, or how it’s used. When asked about such a program, the Justice Department didn’t confirm or deny its existence. A official did say, however, that Justice Department agencies comply with federal law, “including by seeking court approval.”
If true, WSJ’s report exposes yet another invasive surveillance program that essentially ignores privacy. Speaking to WSJ, Christopher Soghoian, chief technologist at the American Civicl Liberties Union, called the program “dragnet surveillance.” Soghoian said, “It’s inexcusable and it’s likely—to the extent judges are authorizing it—(that) they have no idea of the scale of it.”
Worse, these fake cell tower devices can reportedly interrupt calls—even calls to emergency responders, though authorities have apparently tried to “minimize” its “potential for harm.” The program doesn’t even go through carriers as a middle man—they’re just cut out completely. So rather than asking a carrier for cell-tower information, the Justice Department is instead spending money (tax dollars?) to scoop that information up.
By taking the program airborne, the government can sift through a greater volume of information and with greater precision, these people said. If a suspect’s cellphone is identified, the technology can pinpoint its location within about three meters, down to a specific room in a building. Newer versions of the technology can be programmed to do more than suck in data: They can also jam signals and retrieve data from a target phone such as texts or photos. It isn’t clear if this domestic program has ever used those features.
The WSJ says similar technology is used in war zones. People familiar with the program added that the technology has helped law enforcement catch suspected drug dealers and killers. One source said what the Justice Department is doing is “completely legal.”
Some telecom providers have declined to comment on WSJ’s claims, while other have said they are unaware of the program’s existence.