New reports have emerged suggesting that large amounts of data are being harvested from American’s cell phones by yet another government agency. According to two informants closely associated with the activity, in an effort to catch criminals the U.S. Marshals Service is mounting cellphone tracking devices on airplanes, joining the FBI is running an air force designed to spy on law abiding citizens.
The U.S. Marshals Service, which is tasked with finding and capturing fugitives as well as to protect the federal judiciary, was revealed to have installed the tracking devices on a fleet of Cessna aircraft which then collect data from all citizens on the ground below. This can include potential criminals as well as law-abiding citizens. The aircraft with the devices operate out of at least five metro-area airports.
The Wall Street Journal was the first to report on this issue last Thursday. In their report, the devices are placed within the walls of planes and are two-foot square in size. The devices work by mimicking cell towers and tricking phones into sharing information such as registration and location with them. For their ability to gather this information inadvertently, these devices have gained the nickname “dirtboxes”.
Although these reports have been surfaced, the Justice Department had not comment on the existence or denial of such devices.
One department official, who requested anonymity, stated “Discussion of sensitive law enforcement equipment and techniques would allow criminal defendants, criminal enterprises or foreign powers to determine our capabilities and limitations in this area”. This official went on to describe how practices such as these devices are always in compliance with the federal law and complete with court approval, though it remains to be seen just how strict oversight is of the both the data collected and its use after collection.
The revelations of yet more domestic spying come as hearings are now being held within federal courts to decide if the NSA’s collection of phone data is breaching the Constitution's right to privacy. These debates come after Edward Snowden, former National Security Agency contractor, leaked information on how the NSA was collecting phone “metadata” from millions of Americans within the United States. This practice was used to track terrorists, yet many feel it is a direct violation of privacy as comprehensive dossiers now exist on every American citizen.
These reported devices being used in airplanes are similar to ones used by the FBI, called Stingray devices. These are used in vehicles in order to determine the serial numbers of cellphones and to track them. Some judges are questioning whether or not there is enough supportive evidence to enable the use of such indiscriminate tracking devices as the Stingray has the range to penetrate homes and innocent bystanders’ cell phones nearby.