A report from The Wall Street Journal alleges the United Stated Department of Justice has been using fake cell towers (called “dirtboxes”) installed in airplanes to gather mobile phone data in order to track criminals. The program is reported to have been operating since 2007, using Cessna airplanes operating out of various metropolitan-area airports.
Aircraft in the program out outfitted with “dirtbox” devices produced by Boeing that are designed to mimic cellular towers, fooling cellphones into reporting “unique registration information” to track down “individuals under investigation.” According to the WSJ, these devices let investigators gather “identifying information and general location” data from thousands of cellular phones in one flight, and Apple’s encryption policies don’t prevent the collection of data.
Mobile phones are programmed to connect automatically to the strongest cell tower signal. The devices installed in the plane identifies itself as the nearest and strongest cell signal, forcing all nearby mobile phones to route their traffic through that “tower.”
The technology is aimed at locating cellphones linked to individuals under investigation by the government, including fugitives and drug dealers, but it collects information on cellphones belonging to people who aren’t criminal suspects, these people said. They said the device determines which phones belong to suspects and “lets go” of the non-suspect phones.
Newer versions of the “dirtboxes” can even jam cell signals or pull texts, photos, and other data from the phone.
The program is run by the U.S. Marshals service. The program has raised concerns about the legality of the program, and whether there are “effective procedures” in place to safeguard the handling of the acquired data. The program is said to capture data from thousands of non-criminals as well.
Justice officials refused to confirm or deny the existence of the program, stating that a discussion of the matter could “allow criminal suspects or foreign powers to determine U.S. surveillance capabilities.” A DoJ representative did state that Justice Department agencies comply with federal laws, and seek court approval for their activities.
As far as any cooperation from wireless carriers is concerned, a Verizon spokesman said the company was not aware of the program and did not participate in it, while Sprint and AT&T representatives declined to comment.