Secret US Spy Program Tracks Cellphone Users
Planes carrying 'dirtboxes' trick phones into sending identifying data and location
By Elizabeth Armstrong Moore,  Newser Staff
Posted Nov 14, 2014 2:00 AM CST
A Cessna 172 airplane flies Jan. 12, 2014, over a nearly full moon as it leaves the Bowling Green/Warren County Regional Airport in Bowling Green, Ky.   (AP Photo/Daily News, Joshua Lindsey)

(Newser) – The extent to which the US government spies on US soil continues to unfold. The latest revelation: Using Cessna aircraft over at least five metropolitan-area airports, the Justice Department oversees (albeit to an unknown extent) a program that indiscriminately accesses large amounts of cellphone data, including identifying information and people's general locations, to search for suspects. The program cuts out the middleman—cellphone companies—a process law enforcement has described as slow and inaccurate. The Justice Department has neither confirmed nor denied the program, but people close to it tell the Wall Street Journal that this type of surveillance happens on a regular basis.

Cellphones are programmed to automatically access a cell tower with the strongest signal, but the devices being used by the US Marshals Service, some of which are called "dirtboxes," appear to have the strongest signal even when they don't, forcing all phones that detect them to send their unique registration info. Phone encryption like that on Apple's iPhone 6 doesn't protect against this. The chief technologist at the American Civil Liberties Union tells the Post, "It's inexcusable and it's likely—to the extent judges are authorizing it—[that] they have no idea of the scale of it. What is done on US soil is completely legal; whether it should be done is a separate question." It's unclear how the program ensures that data captured from innocent people isn't later used by investigators. (Last year the FBI acknowledged using surveillance drones on US soil.)