Government spy planes being used to collect cellphone data

Posted Nov 17, 2014 by Stephen Morgan
In the last few days, an aerial spy network used by the Justice Dept and US Marshalls to collect cellphone information has been exposed.
A Cessna plane
A Cessna plane
Back in September, Digital Journal reported that mysterious cellphone towers across the US were being used to spy on users. Now it has come to light that the US government is also using planes to collect information from mobile phones by using a device aboard the aircraft which mimics such cellphone towers. They are using planes, because they can collect far more data than by other means of electronic surveillance.
The story broke last week in the Wall Street Journal online , which ran an article entitled, “Americans’ Cellphones Targeted in Secret U.S. Spy Program.” The article explained that the Justice Department and U.S. Marshals Service program has been spying on citizens since 2007. The method was ostensibly used to track criminals, but it is also scooping up tons of information from thousands of ordinary people.
The devices are aptly named “dirtboxes” by police and law enforcement agencies. They are reported to be flying Cessna aircraft from the nation's five main airports picking up private data from the majority of the country's population. The Justice Department refused to confirm the existence of such flights, citing matters of national security and criminal investigations. But WSJ confirmed its information came from sources close to the operation.
Security expert Prof Alan Woodward told the BBC that they operate like Stingray, another more well-known cell phone surveillance tool. These are known by the acronym IMSI or International Mobile Subscriber Identity catchers because they can collect the identification data of devices into their own networks.
"In essence, you spoof networks by pretending to be a cell tower. You turn off encryption, and then you can extract all sorts of info such as calls made, where, when etc etc," said Prof Woodward.
However, this system is more sophisticated than any others. As the WSJ explains,
"If a suspect is believed to have a cellphone from Verizon Communications Inc., for example, the device would emit a signal fooling Verizon phones and those roaming on Verizon’s network into thinking the plane is the nearest available Verizon cell tower. Phones that are turned on, even if not in use, would “ping’’ the flying device and send their registration information."
The website Truthalerts says that even encryption cannot stop them. This includes getting hold of your texts and photos. And the boxes allow planes to locate anyone down to the very room they are in.
The device is made by DRT (Digital Receiver Technology Inc) which is a subsidiary of Boeing. Verizon denied any knowledge of the programme, but AT&T Inc. and Sprint Corp spokespersons have both declined to comment,
The WSJ says that its similar to the surveillance programme being run by the NSA, which collects millions of phone records. But given the refusal of the Justice Department to discuss the issue, people can have no idea of how this personal information is being used or stored.
The Journal quotes Christopher Soghoian, chief technologist at the American Civil Liberties Union, who described it as “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.”
Undoubtedly, the spy system helps the police with criminal investigations, but as Mr. Soghoian added “ is it worth thousands or tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of peoples’ privacy?”
According to the WSJ, the nature of the surveillance is giving rise to doubts in law enforcement agencies themselves. It quotes one source close to the programme who said, “What is done on U.S. soil is completely legal. Whether it should be done is a separate question.”