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Department of Justice Snatching Data From Citizens’ Cell Phones Using Planes and “Dirtboxes”

{!hitembed ID=”hitembed_1″ width=”500″ height=”281″ align=”none” !}
Here we go again. The Department of Justice has been using a legally questionable program to target criminal suspect’s cell phone data. The program involves flying small Cessna planes equipped with a device known as a “dirtbox” which mimics cell towers in order to trick cellphones into giving out their registration information. Like the now notorious NSA programs exposed by Edward Snowden, the dirtbox program scoops up large amounts of data from entirely innocent people in order to look for those suspected of wrongdoing.

The use of this electronic dragnet is, according to an anonymous Justice Department official that spoke to The Wall Street Journal, legal and done with a judge’s approval. How a general warrant program gets by Fourth Amendment protections is an open question and one that could face some scrutiny now that the program has been revealed.

Cellphones are programmed to connect automatically to the strongest cell tower signal. The device being used by the U.S. Marshals Service identifies itself as having the closest, strongest signal, even though it doesn’t, and forces all the phones that can detect its signal to send in their unique registration information. Even having encryption on a phone, such as the kind included on Apple Inc.’s iPhone 6, doesn’t prevent this process.

The technology is aimed at locating cellphones linked to individuals under investigation by the government, including fugitives and drug dealers, but it collects information on cellphones belonging to people who aren’t criminal suspects, these people said. They said the device determines which phones belong to suspects and “lets go” of the non-suspect phones.

The value of the program for law enforcement beyond getting everything and the deciding what to disregard (rather than building from the ground up) is that using the dirtboxes cuts out the phone companies altogether. Instead of getting authorization to have the telcom companies track someone on their system – requiring legal justification and a paper trail – the government bypasses them and snatches up all the cell phone information in a given area itself.

What does DOJ do with all the information related to innocent people it grabs? It remains unclear. In theory that information should be disregarded as not relevant to the suspect they are pursuing, but we all know how hard it is for the government to give up data once it has it. Looks like DOJ may have its own metadata program.

Right now small Cessnas are being used to run the dragnet creating some technical limitations on time in the air and area that can be covered, but we all know this technology is going to be part of the domestic drone program, don’t we? A domestic drone fleet could fly all day and night in every corner of the country. Can you locate me now?

CommunityThe Bullpen

Department Of Justice Snatching Data From Citizens’ Cell Phones Using Planes And “Dirtboxes”

{!hitembed ID=”hitembed_1″ width=”500″ height=”281″ align=”none” !}
Here we go again. The Department of Justice has been using a legally questionable program to target criminal suspect’s cell phone data. The program involves flying small Cessna planes equipped with a device known as a “dirtbox” which mimics cell towers in order to trick cellphones into giving out their registration information. Like the now notorious NSA programs exposed by Edward Snowden, the dirtbox program scoops up large amounts of data from entirely innocent people in order to look for those suspected of wrongdoing.

The use of this electronic dragnet is, according to an anonymous Justice Department official that spoke to The Wall Street Journal, legal and done with a judge’s approval. How a general warrant program gets by Fourth Amendment protections is an open question and one that could face some scrutiny now that the program has been revealed.

Cellphones are programmed to connect automatically to the strongest cell tower signal. The device being used by the U.S. Marshals Service identifies itself as having the closest, strongest signal, even though it doesn’t, and forces all the phones that can detect its signal to send in their unique registration information. Even having encryption on a phone, such as the kind included on Apple Inc.’s iPhone 6, doesn’t prevent this process.

The technology is aimed at locating cellphones linked to individuals under investigation by the government, including fugitives and drug dealers, but it collects information on cellphones belonging to people who aren’t criminal suspects, these people said. They said the device determines which phones belong to suspects and “lets go” of the non-suspect phones.

The value of the program for law enforcement beyond getting everything and the deciding what to disregard (rather than building from the ground up) is that using the dirtboxes cuts out the phone companies altogether. Instead of getting authorization to have the telcom companies track someone on their system – requiring legal justification and a paper trail – the government bypasses them and snatches up all the cell phone information in a given area itself.

What does DOJ do with all the information related to innocent people it grabs? It remains unclear. In theory that information should be disregarded as not relevant to the suspect they are pursuing, but we all know how hard it is for the government to give up data once it has it. Looks like DOJ may have its own metadata program.

Right now small Cessnas are being used to run the dragnet creating some technical limitations on time in the air and area that can be covered, but we all know this technology is going to be part of the domestic drone program, don’t we? A domestic drone fleet could fly all day and night in every corner of the country. Can you locate me now?

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Dan Wright

Dan Wright

Daniel Wright is a longtime blogger and currently writes for Shadowproof. He lives in New Jersey, by choice.