Feds Using Planes To Spy on Cellphone Users

The U.S. Marshals Service is flying over parts of the country with devices that can collect large amounts of data from the cellphones of anyone on the ground, according to a report published Thursday in the Wall Street Journal. The devices, called "dirtboxes," can collect registration and location information from phones by mimicking the behaviors of cellphone towers, the newspaper reported.

In that regard, the dirtboxes appear to be similar to the StingRay devices that have been used by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation since at least 1995 to track and locate cellphones and cellphone users.

According to this latest report, the U.S. Marshals Service -- which is part of the U.S. Department of Justice -- is operating dirtbox-equipped Cessna airplanes out of at least five airports across the country. An anonymous Justice Department official wouldn't confirm or deny the existence of the program, but told the Journal that the agency's use of any such equipment complied with federal law.

'Pretty Jarring'

We reached out to the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), a non-profit organization that advocates for privacy and civil rights, to learn more about the implications of this latest revelation about U.S. government surveillance of cellphones.

"I think this disclosure is pretty jarring, considering the fact they're using a device . . . that, really, we haven't had the opportunity to discuss in public," said EPIC Senior Counsel Alan Butler. "We're just pulling back the curtain on how broadly this technology is used. It's clear now these devices have been used for many years."

In the wake of this latest report, Butler said that EPIC was preparing to file Freedom of Information Act requests with the federal government to obtain more information about the dirtbox devices and how they are being used.

More than Just Metadata

Since former National...

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