How the Justice Department Spies on You From the Air

A Wall Street Journal report has revealed that cell-spoofing technology isn't limited to land-based Stingrays.

by Jason Koebler
Nov 13 2014, 11:11pm

The planes used are similar to this (obviously not a Justice Department plane) Image: Joao Carlos Medau/Flickr

Law enforcement isn't only capturing location data from thousands of cellphones using Stingrays, which mimic cell phone towers, they're doing so using an extremely similar technology that's deployed from Cessna aircraft, according to a Wall Street Journal Report.

The US Marshals Service Program has been flying aircraft armed with Boeing "dirtboxes" from at least five major airports, potentially scooping up data on thousands of people at a time, according to the report.

The devices work using the same underlying technology as Stingrays, the controversial and potentially illegal technology that spoofs cell phone towers. In doing so, the Stingray (or the dirtbox) forces all the cell phones in a certain area to connect to it, allowing law enforcement to grab metadata and location data on criminal suspects—but also taking the data from whoever else is within range. Dirtboxes are apparently more powerful and longer range than Stingrays, according to the report.

There's no way to use these carefully

Stingrays are often used without a warrant, a tactic that the Florida Supreme Court decided last month was a violation of Fourth Amendment rights against illegal search and seizure. The Justice Department wouldn't confirm on the record to the Wall Street Journal (or to us) that the program even exists, but noted that it complies with federal law.

That doesn't mean the Justice Department is getting a warrant, however. And no court has thus far tested whether or not such dragnet surveillance is legal, even if it's targeting a specific criminal suspect. The way the technology works—by forcing all cell phones in an area to connect to it—makes it impossible to individually target single suspects.

So, why use airplanes to do this instead of ground-based Stingrays? The Wall Street Journal reports that airborne dirtboxes are much more accurate and can pinpoint location data better than Stingrays. They can also target multiple suspects in one flight, which the Journal notes is common under the program.

The Journal report cites anonymous people within the Justice Department who are familiar with the program, and a Department of Commerce Filing by Boeing notes that it has "developed a device that emulates a cellular base station to attract cell phones for a registration process even when they are not in use."

"During this registration process calls are not disrupted," it notes, adding that all cell phones are categorized as "not of interest" or "of interest," with those that are not of interest being tossed back to whatever wireless carrier is using them. "Cell phones of interest are forced to transmit so that the DRT device can locate them by calculating a line of bearing."

In any case, it's unclear how long the Justice Department is holding any data it gets, and how it classifies whether a cell phone is "of interest" or not. That's very problematic from a civil liberties perspective, according to Nate Wessler, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union. He notes that Stingrays can interrupt calls, and this technology probably can, too, despite what Boeing said in its filing (the Wall Street Journal also notes this possibility).

"There's no way to use these carefully," Wessler told me about Stingrays. "The devices wrap up innocent people, which looks like a dragnet search that's not legal under the Fourth Amendment."

"Even if they're tracking a specific suspect, they're getting info about every bystander," he added. "That's a concern."