WSJ: US Using Fake Cell Phone Towers on Planes to Spy on Citizens

planeThe United States is spying on its citizens by gathering data from thousands of cell phones using fake phone towers attached on airplanes, the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported Thursday, November 13.

Phone Tapping in the Sky

The spy program is run by the US Marshals Service, an agency of the US Department of Justice. The operations began in 2007 and gathers data from thousands of mobile phones, including those of criminal suspects and innocent citizens. The agency uses Cessna planes taking off from at least five major airports and covers most of the US population, the WSJ said, citing sources familiar with the operations.

The planes use devices made by Boeing Co, which mimic cell phone towers used by most major telecommunications companies across the nation. The fake phone tower tricks mobile phones into disclosing their unique registration data, the newspaper reported.

Compliant with Federal Law

Nicknamed “dirtboxes,” the devices can supposedly collect user-related data from tens of thousands of cell phones in just one single flight trip, which occurs on a regular basis, the Journal cited the sources as saying.

The report also said an official from the Justice Department would not confirm or deny the existence of such a program. The official said a discussion of the program, whether it exists or not, would allow criminal suspects or foreign powers to gauge and know the surveillance abilities of the US. If such a program does exist, though, the department agencies comply with federal law, including getting approval from the courts.

Special Software and Features

The alleged program is similar to the one used by the National Security Agency in collecting the phone records of millions of Americans to find an individual or a handful of people.

According to the WSJ article, the device features a program that decides which phones belong to suspects. It supposedly “lets go” of phones of non-suspects.

One source familiar with the matter said while the program can interrupt calls on certain phones, authorities have made several software tweaks to make sure it does not interrupt anyone calling the 911 emergency number.

The device also supposedly bypasses telephone companies, allowing authorities to locate suspects directly without a trace of tapping into the phone signals.

American Civil Liberties Union chief technologist Christopher Soghoian called the spy operations “a dragnet surveillance program.”

“It’s inexcusable and it’s likely, to the extent judges are authorizing it, they have no idea of the scale of it,” Soghoian was quoted by the WSJ as saying.

The report adds it is unknown what measures are being taken to ensure data collected from innocent Americans are not stored for future perusal by the said agency and other authorities.