The US Department of Justice is installing equipment on airplanes that masquerades as a cell phone tower in order to gather mobile phone data, according to a new report from The Wall Street Journal. The program’s goal is to identify criminals, but each plane is capable of collecting data from thousands of phones in a single flight.

The Journal says these spy devices are called “dirtboxes,” and have a surface area of two feet by two feet. They’re being installed on fixed-wing aircraft by the US Marshals Service’s Technical Operations group, and purport to be strong-signaled cell towers. This tricks cellphones into giving them their IMSI info, making them totally trackable.

Once a suspect’s cellphone has been identified, a dirtbox can pinpoint its location within an impressive 10 feet—all the way down to a specific room in a building. Newer versions of the technology can reportedly do a lot more than GPS tracking, such as jam cellular signals and retrieve data from a targeted phone including texts and photos.

dirtbox doj

And because it uses IMSI (International Mobile Subscriber Identity) numbers—the most basic form of identification shared by all cellular networks—encryption does nothing to prevent the process. It completely bypasses the phone’s software, and even carriers. A spokesperson for Verizon was quick to note that it was not aware of the project.

Unsurprisingly, the Journal says some folks inside the Marshals Service have questioned the legality of the spy program and its internal safeguards. While dirtboxes are programmed to discard data collected from non-suspect devices, they don’t do so immediately, meaning at some point they’re carrying private information on thousands of users.

When questioned, the Department of Justice said that “what is done on U.S. soil is completely legal,” although it’s not clear how closely it monitors the program. It’s believed that the US Marshals are operating Cessna aircraft from at least five metropolitan-area airports, with a flying range covering the majority of the United States population.

[The Wall Street Journal]

  • Melvco

    Inb4 ‘airplane mode’ jokes

    • The smart planes that have smart “dirtboxes” that can easily tell the difference from a normal user and a criminals phone. They use the Santa clause algorithm to get a naughty/nice cell phone list.

  • Ernie Marin

    let them spy, either way half the criminals work as the Government anyway.

    • Matt Taylor

      Love this comment lol

      • Antzboogie

        Wow this is such a blow to our own people. We promote democracy and freedom and we do the opposite to ourselves. They have dummy warrants that don’t really distinguish who they can specifically spy on. This is beyond criminal in itself. Where’s our rights??

      • Ernie Marin

        LOL I live in Puerto Rico, you don’t want to share the same rights with us, as long as I can’t vote for the President, they can do whatever they want. Make us a full state, give us voting rights, and then I’ll stand by your right, because right now I have the right to shut up and deal with it.

    • Diego Milano

      As and for the government. 😉

      • Ernie Marin

        nope, I know what I said lol.

      • Diego Milano

        It wasn’t a correction though. 🙂

  • Jamie Carrington

    I don’t know when ‘people familiar with the operations of the program’
    being a source become journalistically acceptable. Also, why make that
    diagram? It’s a basic concept that doesnt require such an uninformative
    diagram. The journalist (Brian McGill) made it to imply; at best, this
    conspiracy theory is worthy of a diagram and at worst (this is what I
    reckon he’s going for) it’s part of a leaked internal document.

    I’m not advocating blanket policy cell phone tracking. I think this is
    either BS, or misunderstood and falsely inflated

  • U Kn0w What 1t 1s

    More government invasions of privacy… When are we the people going to stand up and say enough is enough? There should be technology to identify “real cell towers”. And if your argument is, “you shouldn’t worry, you have nothing to hide”. Then you should inbox me all of your emails and log ins, as well as your address, social security numbers, and log ins for social media. Im betting nobody would do that freely, but for some reason have no problem with some other guy doing it because he “works for the government”. Such sheep some of you.

    • Rowan09

      I agree. Some got fooled with the 9-11 setup and it only makes us less free.

    • Antzboogie

      Well said and I agree.

  • Bugs Bunnay

    now you know why we are so much more in to debt than we already are right?

  • Steven Honey

  • Gary le

    They better not mistaken me for a suspect at sfo since i dont want ant inconviniences and if they do see my text and photos please delete my records after seeing lol

  • Pamela_Landry_Y328 mail

    They are performing something different this time around. I haven’t read the books but I’ve read on them and they’re adjusting thing about therefore they don’t really have to adhere to the history of the third guide