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Mobile phone data is being intercepted in massive quantities by the U.S. Marshals Service. According to sources acquainted with the operation, the data is being harvested by airplane mounted equipment and that information from American’s mobile phones is used in an attempt to find fugitives. According to an article in Thursday’s Wall Street Journal, Cessna airplanes from at least five airports amass data from both criminal suspects and innocent Americans.
The planes use a small device, referred to as a “dirtbox,” to emulate cellphone towers and make cellphones report their relative position, as well as distinct registration. The U.S. Marshals service, which is a part of the Justice Department, captures federal fugitive and safeguards the court system. The existence of the program was neither confirmed nor denied by Justice Department officials.
A department official, who gave an anonymous statement, said that discussing law enforcement techniques and equipment would let foreign powers and criminals learn our limitations and capabilities. He further stated that when using these tactics or devices, the federal government’s law enforcement organizations observe federal regulations, in addition to obtaining court authorization.
Knowledge of this operation became available after Edward Snowden, a former contractor for the National Security Agency, disclosed information regarding the government’s broad surveillance programs. One of the NSA programs uncovered last year gathers phone call data, but not the substance of calls, for many Americans on a domestic basis to find terrorists. Congress is currently contemplating laws that will stop the collection of this data and challenges are being heard regarding the constitutionality of the program.
Mobile phones are designed to automatically connect to the cell tower with the strongest signal. Equipment utilized by the U.S. Marshal Service falsely transmits that it has the strongest and closest signal in order to make mobile phones find its signal and transmit their distinctive registration data. Even phones with encryption like the iPhone 6 are not immune to this system.
Although the purpose of this technology used by the U.S. Marshals Service is to intercept and find mobile phones of people being investigated by the U.S. government, such as drug dealers and fugitives, it also gathers data from cellphones that are owned by individuals who are not suspected criminals. These devices can lock on to those phones belonging to criminal suspects and release the phones of those that do not belong to criminals. Some phones may be interrupted temporarily, but authorities have attempted to prevent any harm by changing its software, so that the false tower does not prevent someone from calling 911.
The program eliminates the need for law enforcement to ask phone companies for help in their search for criminal suspects. Instead of asking a company for data to aid in locating a suspect, which law enforcement has said is imprecise and slow, the U.S. Marshals Service is able to obtain that data on its own.
The devices utilized by the U.S. Marshals Service to intercept data from mobile phones are comparable in some ways to those employed by the FBI, who use a device, called a “StingRay,” in land-based vehicles to locate cellphones and collect their individual serial numbers. Judges and privacy groups have brought up concerns that technology such as the StingRay is too invasive and can penetrate walls of residences. Therefore, they contend a warrant should be required to use the device. A number of judges feel that not enough evidence is provided by federal agents to warrant using the “StingRay” to collect data from all nearby mobile phones, as well as the suspect’s phone.
By Gerald Sowell