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.
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 Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden released a large amount of classified information from the agency beginning in June 2013, the public has learned about numerous government surveillance programs that have been, or still are, scooping up data from e-mails, online browsing and cellphone activity.
While federal officials have said such programs are legal and aimed at fighting terrorism and crime, privacy and civil rights advocates question the legality of such broad surveillance tactics that collect vast amounts of data about ordinary citizens.
The latest news about the airborne dirtboxes indicates "a much more expansive surveillance activity than collection of metadata," Butler said. Because such techniques could gather information not just from criminal suspects but from a large number of ordinary citizens out on the streets or even in their homes, "that's a 4th Amendment search," Butler said.
Butler acknowledged that the government can justify the use of devices like StingRays and dirtboxes by obtaining warrants that specify the need for such surveillance in criminal or terrorism investigations. What's needed at this point was an explicit acknowledgment -- via legislation, if necessary -- that government agencies would use these devices "only with a warrant," he said.
Posted: 2014-11-17 @ 8:29am PT
What the cell users need to know is what the DOJ is doing with the surplus of data that the dirtboxes have collected that is not of any use for national security?
Posted: 2014-11-16 @ 3:01am PT
All your comments are being collected as you speak out against this.
Posted: 2014-11-16 @ 2:37am PT
It is long passed guillotine time.
Posted: 2014-11-16 @ 2:29am PT
Nothing turning your cell phone off, wrapping it in aluminum foil and putting black electrical tape can't fix.
Posted: 2014-11-15 @ 7:18pm PT
Have you given any serious thought as to why the powers that be wanted to go from landlines to wireless? Could it be to intercept all traffic on the airways without the messy need for search warrants? Hmmm, just saying.
Posted: 2014-11-14 @ 12:16pm PT
Ummm . . . I think it's time to take action against the tyranny and demand change. All this mistrust between government and the people can only lead to an uprising eventually.
Posted: 2014-11-14 @ 11:34am PT
What else is new. It's not going to change.