Privacy conscious US citizens should get their tin foil hats ready as the Wall Street Journal reports that the US Department of Justice is using two-foot-square data gathering devices attached to Cessna airplanes. These planes reportedly gather data from tens of thousands of mobile devices from criminals and innocents alike, all in a single flight.
These secret operations became fully function in 2007 run by the U.S. Marshals Service. The purpose of this operation is mainly to gather data to locate criminals but doing so, it collects data of all mobile devices similar to the towers used by major telecommunication firms. The device attached to the Cessna aircraft is referred to as a 'dirtbox' which poses as a cell phone tower tricking mobile phones to connect to it which reveals the location of the cell phone user.
Individuals familiar with these operations have told The Wall Street Journal that the Cessna aircrafts operate from five metropolitan airports around the city. These individuals have refused to disclose the routine or duration of these flights but have mentioned that these flights take place on a regular basis.
The reaction to this news has been met by an uproar by US citizens which is hardly surprising. Nathan Freed Wessler, staff attorney with the ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, emailed to SCMagazine that:
It is outrageous that this large-scale surveillance of Americans has been taking place in secret, these devices pose a serious threat to the Fourth Amendment, and at a minimum there must be robust judicial oversight, full transparency, and strict limits on use.
On the other hand, the US governement naturally believes that this aerial surveillance is legitimate because according to the Wall Street Journal whicle the data of all phones is gathered, investigators 'let go' of phones not related to suspects.
Darren Hayes, assistant professor and director of cybersecurity at Pace University's Seidenberg School of Computer Science and Information Systems, told SCMagazine that:
I am not surprised that the ACLU and other civil liberties take issue with the nature and scope of these cell phone user captures, it's more that I do not see an issue with this because there is no sensitive content being captured and law enforcement will need to follow up with a warrant to conduct a search only if a judge deems it necessary.
Ultimately, the FBI and similar agencies have no inclination or even the resources to analyze the general public's communications and are only interested in finding criminal suspects
A side effect of using the 'dirtbox' device also includes that it has the potential to disrupt phone calls which can prove disastrous in emergency situations, according to another source of the Journal, the government is taking steps to prevent this major issue.