The Wall Street Journal released a very concerning report regarding some governmental dark practices on Thursday evening. These practices severely affect peoples’ personal information safety and trust in the authorities. According to the journalists involved in the investigation, the Justice Department, and more specifically, the U.S. Marshals Service, use some devices mounted on airplanes to secretly spy on the American public. These devices mimic cell phone towers, tricking cell phones into sending them localization and identification data. These Dirtboxes spying on civilians are said to be attached on Cessna aircraft and are able to gather personal information from “tens of thousands” of cell phones on the ground.
The investigators also found out that these devices have been operating since 2007 and are being used even today “on a regular basis”, being also perfectly legal. They get their name from their manufacturer, Digital Recovery Technology Inc. (DRT), a subsidiary of the Boeing Company. Moreover, the planes used to collect such information depart from five major airports in the country, being able to cover almost the entire territory.
The Dirtboxes spying on civilians are described as IMSI (International Mobile Subscriber Identity) catchers, or gatherers. When your cellphone detects a tower in the area (and the Dirtboxes fake the presence of such towers) it connects to it in an attempt to use it. This way, the Dirtbox collects your personal info, tracks your location, browses through your messages and even disrupts your cellular service. The Justice Department is said to use the Dirtboxes and the information they gather in order to track and capture fugitives, criminals and terrorists.
This report has Edward Snowden written all over it, in the sense that once again, the American public learns about governmental secret surveillance practices. In the past years, there were similar reports concerning the governments’ use of other IMSI catchers, such as the Stingray and the Gossamer.
However, Wall Street Journal investigators quoted some sources which claimed that the Dirtboxes operations were ran within federal laws and the planes never hovered over innocent people without court orders. Also, some sources mentioned that all the irrelevant data gathered by the Dirtboxes was being discarded.
As comforting as this may sound, the Dirtboxes spying on civilians are considered a slap on the face by all civil rights advocates. The fact that the Dirtboxes can pinpoint someone’s location in a range of nine feet is not something people can treat with ease. Journalists tried to further inquire on the matter, but so far the Justice Department and some of the major cell phone service providers refrained from all comments. The sources who came forward for the Wall Street Journal investigation remain anonymous.