Secret Government Program Gathers Mobile Phone Data of Everyone

A secret government program flies planes over the country with fake communication towers to fool mobile phones into connecting with them.

phone lock key

First the good news: people who should know have told the media that this program tries to find a suspect’s phone and “let’s go” of other phones. I’m glad to hear it.

But this program is such a guarded secret and it does, in fact, for at least some time, grab all phones indiscriminately and gather data. One can only wonder if this unverified claim is true.

From Reuters: “U.S. using fake cellphone towers on planes to gather data: WSJ.”

An agency of the U.S. Justice Department is gathering data from thousands of cell phones, including both criminal suspects and innocent Americans, by using fake communications towers on airplanes, the Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday.

The program run by the U.S. Marshals Service began operations in 2007 and uses Cessna planes flying from at least five major airports and covering most of the U.S. population, the newspaper said, citing people familiar with the operations.

The planes use devices made by Boeing Co that mimic the cell phone towers used by major telecommunications companies and trick mobile phones into revealing their unique registration data, the report said.

The devices, nicknamed “dirtboxes,” can collect information from tens of thousands of cell phones in a single flight, which occur on a regular basis, according to those with knowledge of the program, the Journal said.

It said a Justice Department official would not confirm or deny the existence of such a program, saying such discussion would allow criminal suspects or foreign powers to determine U.S. surveillance abilities, but that department agencies comply with federal law, including by seeking court approval.

A Department of Justice spokesman declined to comment to Reuters.

Presumably the court permissions are secret, or else the “criminal suspects or foreign powers” would “determine U.S. surveillance abilities. The department’s compliance with federal law is also unverified (Is the department’s interpretation of federal law open to the public?).

[See also, “FBI: Don’t Malign Our Assault on the Fourth Amendment.”]

So all we have here is a secret practice that we must trust is being done responsibly and legally.