Report: Justice Department program scoops up Americans' cell phone identities in hunt for criminals

The U.S. Department of Justice is operating a program that sends out airplanes with equipment that mimics cell towers in an effort to track criminals and fugitives, but that also winds up scooping up identifying data about innocent Americans, according to a Wall Street Journal report.

The report, citing unnamed sources familiar with the program, said it is run out of the U.S. Marshals Service and started around 2007. The program uses Cessna aircraft from at least five metropolitan-area airports, with a flying range covering most of the U.S. population. Each flight can potentially capture data from tens of thousands of cellphones, collecting American's identifying information and general location.

According to the report, law enforcement officials refer to the equipment on the planes as "dirtboxes'' because of the acronym of the company making the device, DRT, for Digital Receiver Technology Inc. DRT is a subsidiary of Boeing, which declined to comment, the report said. The technology serves as a so-called "IMSI catcher,'' named for the identification system used by networks to identify individual mobile phones.

Mobile phones are designed to connect automatically to the strongest nearby cell tower signal. The device being used on the plans mimics that tower even though it isn't a tower at all, forcing the cell phones in the area that connect to it to send them their unique identifying information.

The program is another example of how, in an effort to track or capture terrorists or criminals, U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies have increasingly targeted surveillance technology at ordinary Americans. The report comes after widespread revelations that the National Security Agency was collecting telephone metadata on virtually every call Americans made and then going back through that data to search for links to terrorist suspects. President Barack Obama in March endorsed changes to the program under which the NSA would no longer collect the data, and the data would stay with phone companies, which would not be required to keep it longer than they normally would.

It's unclear how often the flights are or how long they travel, but the report said they take place regularly. The flights usually target several criminal suspects at a time, the report said.

A Justice Department official would neither confirm nor deny the existence of such a program, according to the report. Justice Department agencies comply with federal law, including by seeking court approval, a DoJ official told the Journal.

Christopher Soghoian, chief technologist at the American Civil Liberties Union, told the Journal the program is "a dragnet surveillance program. It's inexcusable and it's likely--to the extent judges are authorizing it--[that] they have no idea of the scale of it."

The report said the devices on the planes determines which phones belong to suspects and "lets go" of the non-suspect phones.

Importantly, the program cuts out wireless carriers in searching for targets. 

The program does require court orders to search for phones, but it isn't clear what those orders specify. It's also unknown how the U.S. Marshals protect information of non-suspects whose data is swept up.

A Verizon Communications (NYSE: VZ) spokesman said the company was unaware of the program. "The security of Verizon's network and our customers' privacy are top priorities,'' the spokesman told the Journal. "However, to be clear, the equipment referenced in the article is not Verizon's and is not part of our network." AT&T (NYSE: T) and Sprint (NYSE: S) declined to comment, the report said.

For more:
- see this WSJ article (sub. req.)
- see this Guardian article

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