Law enforcement goes airborne in latest intrusion into personal privacy

Stan Ward

Stan Ward

November 17, 2014

The latest incursion regarding communications privacy is being played out thousands of feet in the sky, according to a recent Wall Steet Journal article. The Justice Department’s Marshals service is putting bogus cell towers on planes in an effort to catch criminals by tracking down their phones.

This is not the first time we’ve seen law enforcement attempting to fool technology by mobilizing cell towers. We reported some months ago that Florida and other locale’s law enforcement were using Stingrays, a cell tower affixed to a vehicle which could penetrate homes to locate users cell phones. Enter now the airborne version.

These two-foot square fake towers, nicknamed “dirtboxes” are placed on light aircraft, such as a Cessna, which flies out of five metro airports and can cover the entire US. They even can mimic a specific provider. So they can connect to a suspected drug dealer in flight enabled with Sprint by pretending to be a Sprint cell tower. Only problem is that once they have pretended to be a Sprint cell tower, they can simultaneously scoop up the data from all that carrier’s subscribers in the area.

In order that they only target a handful of criminals, as they claim, they have effectively collected data on thousands of people, no matter that after locating a suspect, other signals are dropped. The phones need not be on, either.And the more densely populated the target area is, the more data the boxes collect. Even having encryption on a phone, such as the kind included on Apple’s iPhone 6, doesn’t prevent the obtaining of information.

By taking the program airborne, the government can search through more information and with more precision. It can pinpoint an airborne suspect’s location to 10 feet. What is more worrisome and annoying is that advanced versions of the technology can also jam signals and retrieve data from a target phone such as texts or photos.

It became apparent with deployment of Stingrays that judges were not aware of the way data was being garnered when they executed the warrants. This seems to be the case with the dirtboxes. Judges aren’t familiar with the length and breadth of the search operations. This negates the Justice Department argument that it is complying with federal law by getting court approval. They maintain that it is a minimally invasive way of searching for terrorists and other criminals.

The program cuts out phone companies as an intermediary in searching for suspects. They utilize this device and procedure because it saves time. Going to a company and asking for cell-tower information is criticized for being too slow and characterized by law enforcement as inaccurate. Hence, better to obtain the information by themselves and in the process scoop up information on thousands or tens of thousands. It is unknown how long people’s data is kept. This activity represents more sophistication than ever by the government. The aforementioned Stingrays, attacked by privacy groups as an abuse, were heretofore the latest technological gambit by law enforcement.

It is interesting that within the Marshall’s service there is debate about the legality of such operations and the internal safeguards. Also in question is whether they are doing enough to minimize intrusions into the phones of innocent citizens and if there are effective procedures in place to safeguard the handling of that data. Also unclear is the extent of oversight that exists from the Justice Department.

Similar devices are used by the US military and intelligence agencies operating in other countries to locate terrorists and have also been effective in tracking down and capturing drug traffickers and dealers. But this is a far cry from employing the technology on US soil and infringing on the rights of innocent, ordinary civilians to locate and snag a suspect. Such activity flies in the face of a ruling by a federal appeals court this year which stated that over-colection of data by investigators and storing such data was a violation of the Constitution.

Given the present climate in Washington and the mood of the public regarding the Obama administration’s apparent disregard for personal privacy, this latest development is unwelcome. Moreover it could escalate tensions between Washington and tech companies, especially telecom companies. On the heels of the administrations recent pronouncement on net-neutrality, these revelations represent a ratcheting-up of the stand off.

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