It’s not new that planes and drones often play a role of spy. It is know to all that the U.S. use drone to spy on many things. However lately, a new report is swirling around that besides using drones, justice department uses small planes to spy on U.S. cellphones.
According to the new report, the U.S. Justice Department has repeatedly used light aircraft to imitate cellphone towers and gather signals from thousands of phones to aid in criminal investigations. The Wall Street Journal has reported that the surveillance program began in 2007 and is run by the U.S. Marshals Service in at least five cities. It’s been mentioned in the report that the planes carry “dirtboxes.”
A light plane and dirtbox system can bypass to interact with the carriers when needed. It can also bypass the encryption systems. Dirtboxes can fool thousands of cellphones into connecting to them — at which point the DOJ system supposedly narrows its search to a particular suspect’s phone. In other words, they are able to spoof cellphone tower signals from a variety of carriers. Once the phone thinks it’s connected to a tower, it sends its registration information. That lets the Feds track its location going forward, to the extent that they can tell which room the phone is in.
It’s not clear from the report that how frequently the flights are run, what suspects they’re attempting to track and what internal safeguards are in place. But it is clear that the incidental surveillance of U.S. citizens is more widespread than expectation and it isn’t limited to the NSA. It is important to note here that NSA has repeatedly acquired a large volume of phone call “metadata” to track its suspects by more traditional means.