The U.S. Marshals Service has been secretly surveilling thousands of Americans’ cellphones since 2007 with small airplane-mounted devices designed to mimic cell towers.
Citing people “familiar with the program,” The Wall Street Journal reports the program deploys Cessna aircraft from a minimum of “five metropolitan-area airports” spanning a flight range that encapsulates “most of the U.S. population.” Federal agents use the plane-loaded devices to take to the skies and scan thousands of Americans’ cellphones in search of targets wanted by law enforcement.
The surveillance devices produced by Boeing function similar to the “Stingray” devices that have been increasingly used by law enforcement across the country in recent years. The devices, known as “dirtboxes,” masquerade as cell towers and trick nearby cellphones into connecting with the device and revealing identifying and location information, enabling law enforcement to sweep up “tens of thousands of cellphones in a single flight.” (RELATED: FBI Instructed Local Police To Stay Silent About Cellphone Trackers, Interceptors)
Officers must obtain a warrant for each individual search, but it’s unclear whether the orders specify the details involved in sweeping the phones of thousands of innocent civilians in each scan.
Upon connecting with a “dirtbox,” the device can pull data including texts and photos from a phone and track a suspect to within 3 meters by triangulating various signals across multiple locations. (RELATED: California Police Using Secret Anti-Terrorism, Phone-Tracking Tech For ‘Routine Police Work’)
Stingray devices, which were initially intended for use in anti-terrorist operations, have been reported in increasing use among law enforcement for routine police work, but the U.S. Marshals Service program represents the first reported use of the technology on a mass scale by federal authorities. (RELATED: Stingray Developer Misled FCC To Sell Cellphone Tracking Tech To Police)