The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Report: Secret government program uses aircraft for mass cellphone surveillance

Placeholder while article actions load

The U.S. Department of Justice is collecting data from Americans’ cellphones with surveillance planes that “mimic cellphone towers,” according to a Wall Street Journal report.

The program is designed to catch criminals, but collects data from innocent people as well, sources familiar with the operation told the Journal.

The program bears some resemblance to the National Security Administration’s dragnet approach to collecting information while tracking terrorists.

A Justice Department official would not confirm or deny the existence of the program to the Journal: “The official said discussion of such matters would allow criminal suspects or foreign powers to determine U.S. surveillance capabilities. Justice Department agencies comply with federal law, including by seeking court approval, the official said.”

The program has existed since 2007, and is operated by the U.S. Marshals Service’s Technical Operations Group. It deploys Cessna aircraft from at least five airports that, combined, have a flying range that covers most of the U.S. population.

According to the Journal story, by Devlin Barrett, the planes carry a device called a “dirtbox” — the name is inspired by Digital Receiver Technology Inc., the Boeing subsidiary that makes the device — that acts like a cellphone communications tower.

Cellphones register user locations with towers every few minutes, even if they aren’t making a call.

By intercepting these signals, the dirtboxes can identify phones’ unique registration information — even phones with encryption like the new iPhone 6.

The device can pinpoint the location of a cellphone within 10 feet and manipulate the phone by jamming its signal. It can extract text messages and photos from phones, too.

Instead of asking cellphone companies for subscriber information, which law enforcement has done with increased frequency in recent years, agencies can now find it themselves.

In a single flight, the device can collect information about tens of thousands of cellphones. People familiar with the program told the Journal the device can identify phones linked to criminal suspects and keep that information, but “lets go” of information from other phones.

It’s unclear whether the government is keeping data about non-suspects gathered by the device.

Describing it as a “a dragnet surveillance program,” Christopher Soghoian, chief technologist at the American Civil Liberties Union, told the Journal: “It’s inexcusable and it’s likely — to the extent judges are authorizing it — [that] they have no idea of the scale of it.”

Courts are still catching up to technology like cellphone scanners. The Supreme Court has never considered whether this type of surveillance is a search requiring a warrant.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit ruled law enforcement needs a warrant to get people’s phone location histories. However, the 5th Circuit took the opposite view last year.

The most recent Supreme Court case is United States v. Jones, a 2012 decision involving a GPS tracking device attached to a suspect’s car for month with no warrant. The Court decided attaching a device that gathered detailed information over time was a search, but didn’t say whether a warrant was required.

Civil liberties groups have already sued to challenge law enforcement use of similar devices, such as the Stingray, used on the ground by law enforcement to gather mobile data in a given area.