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U.S. government accused of spying on citizens with fake towers to collect phone data

A new report suggests that a U.S. Marshals Service spy program operating under the Justice Department is collecting thousands of cellphone identification numbers from Americans by employing fake communication towers. The program has been operational since 2007 and the towers are mounted on Cessna airplanes operating out of at least five metropolitan-area airports. These fake towers would trick cell phones on the ground into sending their identification numbers, which are then collected by the government for use in criminal cases.

According to the WSJ, this is how the program works:

Planes are equipped with devices—some known as "dirtboxes" to law-enforcement officials because of the initials of the Boeing Co. unit that produces them—which mimic cell towers of large telecommunications firms and trick cellphones into reporting their unique registration information.

And this is how the dirtboxes work in obtaining your phone's identifying information:

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 one's phone, such as Apple Co. 's iPhone 6 now includes, doesn't prevent this process.

According to the Journal, the program is targeted at "individuals under investigation" by the government, but it does collect information from innocent bystanders who aren't a suspect. After analysis of the collected data, it is reported that information from suspects are kept while non-suspect phone data is not.

Through the program, the government no longer needs to rely on phone companies to provide them with cell tower information and they can obtain this data themselves. The danger for consumers is that this technology could interfere with phone calls, though it's reported that special software helps to minimize interruptions with emergency calls to 911.

Also unknown are the steps taken to ensure data collected on innocent people isn't kept for future examination by investigators. A federal appeals court ruled earlier this year that over-collection of data by investigators, and stockpiling of such data, was a violation of the Constitution.

Do you think the latest tactics of the Justice Department is more over-reaching than NSA data collection in the past where massive amounts of cell phone records were collected?

Source: WSJ

37 Comments
  • Is anybody really surprised?? Sent from the iMore App
  • No, but the side effects, beyond the privacy, is that bouncing between these fake low power "towers" can have a battery drain (though minimal I am sure) as well as cause speed issues. (Again, minimal I am sure) But we worry about what Google collects yet at least we get free email for our sacrifice. Sent from the iMore App
  • Son of a bitch I saw one of these fuckers flying real low in my hood the other day
    Those fuckers Can break the law so I can to then !
  • If it means that it will keep this country safe and catch a terrorist. I say go for it.
    You guys act like this is all new. We have been doing this since the very first war this country ever fought. Wanna keep this country free? We will keep getting haters and terrorists. And the government needs to keep us safe. How are they supposed to catch them before the act?
    If you're not doing anything wrong, what are you worried about?
    I bet you would think different if a terrorist attacked your kids' school, your local mall or sporting event. Then you would complaint why the CIA, FBI or NSA didn't catch them before they attacked.
  • boy you are not brainwashed at all
  • No. I served my country and I'm proud of it.
    You're just a spoiled American that likes to complain when the government doesn't do something to protect this country and also complains when they do something.
    Like a woman. There's never a right answer to their question.
  • Lol as they slowly take away your rights. I'm all for it to but I would never serve and put my life on the line for this country Sent from the iMore App
  • Which is fine. If you don't wanna serve. Don't serve. Nobody is making you. But if you're not happy here. Nobody is holding you back either.
  • I have zero respect for your service for my country. None. You served the real enemy of freedom: the government. You're too dumb to figure that out, which makes sense since you're just a pawn that follows orders. I hope for American's sake you choose NOT to become a police officer like every other returning soldier. If you are trained to kill: You can't be trained to serve and protect. "And the government needs to keep us safe. How are they supposed to catch them before the act?" You aren't guilty of a crime before you act. Innocent until proven guilty? Remember that stuff? Guess they don't teach that in the military.
  • Like I said to the idiot above me. You don't like it here? Get out! Nobody is holding you back. Wanna make it better? Do something about it instead of just sitting your lazy ass and complain about it.
    And just because I was in the military doesn't mean I was trained to kill nor will a become a police office. Educate yourself before talking non sense on the Internet.
  • Yes... Terrorists... Sent from the iMore App
  • Are you one of those people that thinks the TSA is also "catching terrorists" by throwing away water bottles and toothpaste tubes?
  • Whatever they have to do to catch the bad guys. I dont mind if they have my info if it helps them catch criminals. Sent from the iMore App
  • Not so fast. People have rights for privacy even under tumultuous conditions.
  • I dont want privacy if it makes the lives of criminals easier. I mean, what on earth would a govt find interesting in my phone? Some pics of my kids and some notes? Have at it! Sent from the iMore App
  • Nudes Sent from the iMore App
  • @lisasagan: Sorry but this is not about you. Or me. This is about us as citizens: there are Constitutional limits to the government's intrusion into individuals' right to privacy. This is true even when pursuing a public purpose such as exercising police powers or passing legislation.
  • @lisasagan I'm filing this under "dumbest post of the day".
  • How rude of me to have an opinion. I look at it this way, say theres a bunch of us in a room and the police come in and say "righto guys theres a murderer in this room and in order to find him we need to have a looksy through all your stuff." I know a lot of people wont like that but i'd be fine with it because i have nothing to hide and i like the idea of murderers being in jail! Sent from the iMore App
  • Not sure why the post got cut off, but as i was saying, id be fine with it because i have nothing to hide and i like the idea of murderers being in jail! Sent from the iMore App
  • Freedom is dead already if this is the consensus opinion of the people.
  • Why can't they just ask carriers like Verizon to track the phone. And how does one find out the cell phone identification number of a suspect? Sent from the iMore App
  • I always wondered what those planes were doing all this time! Sent from the iMore App
  • I agree, it's not new, it's what governments do. I don't think that it's in the best interests of humanity though.
  • Governments didn't do this before mainstream cell phone use. So it's what? 10-15 years of momentum at best. It's not impossible to stop at all. Unless people are apathetic like you are.
  • I believe it's only fair to fly over target areas. and innocents data shouldn't be kept. or even examined Sent from the iMore App
  • Hail America, haha.. No offence tho but America creates wars and terrorist.. They could better focus on Russia's aggression. Sent from the iMore App
  • It cracks me up when media says "War" in Iraq. When a war is being fought inside the nation you are fighting against: Its an Invasion. Guess "Invasion of Iraq" doesn't sound good for American propaganda.
  • Ya, let's get involved in yet another country's problems.
  • Well since police are 100% dependent on cell phones and security camera networks: Just wear a mask, toss your phone and commit as many crimes as you wish? Why not? They don't follow their own laws. Why should I respect their laws?
  • You do realize that if we got rid of law and police you would be one of the first people killed, right? Nobody likes a whiny bitch. It's the laws that you are fighting against that are actually protecting you.
    If you have zero respect for soldiers, as you have stated, you should go tell them face to face. I wonder how far into the beating it would take you to call the police that you hate and ask them to save you. Sent from the iMore App
  • Soldiers ain't the law, they obey orders.. Nothing more, nothing less. Sent from the iMore App
  • They enforce the law when shit hits the fan. Posted from the amazing whatever device I can afford because I'm a broke college kid.
  • The police still has a physical force, and just because you don't use a cell phone doesn't mean you drop off the grid, that takes years of effort and fund you probably don't have do to the quality of beer you drink. And respect our Vets. You may not like the government of the country they fought and died for, but if they hadn't you would not be able to say a damn thing about what you do and don't like. I think you're a loud idiot. Because you seen to think that freedom is dead, you've clearly lost all sense of the rights you do have. We still have our constitutional rights, and if we TAKE them, then we can keep them. We need to read deeply on what we vote on to insure we keep them. We need to curb those in power because we are the people of this country and we can make them serve us to a point. But this is a game of thrones. If you don't play you die (or lose all your damn freedoms and become a whiny Internet person) This is your choice. Our choice. We make it. Not the government. If enough of us speak out they will have no choice but to listen. Proof? I'm posting this. I'm in college. I work and earn an amount of money that's not hindered by my skin color. I know the power of what the people can do because it has happened in the past, but that was at a time where The People were ready to step out from behind their TV's and keyboards and move Together In Force for what they needed and wanted. Like I said before. The choice is ours. Make it. Posted from the amazing whatever device I can afford because I'm a broke college kid.
  • I am curious what they mean by "data". My interpretation of "data" here is simply data gathered on a handshake. If they see a wanted ESN they start monitoring the signal strength until the can narrow down on the location. I seriously doubt they are proxying data back out to the internet and archiving everything that passes. I suspect this is simply a way to locate someone who is hiding somewhere but not actually watching the communications. The guy being tracked probably loses the internet while their phone is connected to the plane. Not saying I trust the government. I just have a feeling the term "data" is being exaggerated a little in this case.
  • How about we put more cops on the street, instead of all this nonsense. Jesus Christ!
  • As a black man I don't want that to happen. Not more cops please, I like the current state of my living body. Posted from the amazing whatever device I can afford because I'm a broke college kid.