Look! Up In The Air!

November 14, 2014

All Posts, News

Depending on whether you think totalitarianism is mandated by the United States Constitution or not, the Obama Administration has achieved either a new high or a new low in warrantless domestic spying on law abiding citizens. Devlin Barrett of the Wall Street Journal reported this morning that the U.S. Marshals Service “operates a secret cellphone surveillance program that deploys an airborne device mimicking cell towers to cull registration data from thousands of Americans’ mobile phones at a time.”

The secret surveillance, which has been operational for the last seven years, uses Cessna aircraft equipped with so-called “dirtboxes.” The two foot square dirtboxes appear to phones to be the strongest available cell tower within range of the aircraft. The dirtboxes then trick phones into reporting their unique registration information. Even encrypted phones like the Apple iPhone 6 are powerless against the intrusion.

The dirtbox exploits a basic fact about cell networks. Phone companies must keep detailed and current records of the location of all their customers in order to deliver calls and texts to them. Consequently, anybody who carries a cellphone, whether it is turned on or not, can be continuously tracked no matter where they are.

Worse Than Stingrays

Because the dirtboxes only deceive phones into thinking they are the strongest available signal, they often interrupt cell calls that were communicating through an actual cell tower.

The technology is much more invasive than the use of Stingrays, which are another device that imitates cell towers and is now widely used by local police throughout the United States to make general searches for suspicious activity by private citizens.

Dirtboxes eliminate phone companies from the surveillance process and appear to be uncontrollable. Both AT&T and Sprint declined to comment on the Journal report. Verizon told the paper it was unaware of the surveillance.


The spy devices are called “dirtboxes” because they are manufactured by Digital Receiver Technology, Inc. The company, which is a subsidiary of Boeing, is widely known by the acronym DRT which is pronounced “dirt.”

The Journal quoted a 2010 regulatory filing by Boeing with the Department of Commerce which bragged “DRT has developed a device that emulates a cellular base station to attract cellphones for a registration process even when they are not in use.”

The Marshalls’ airplanes fly out of five metropolitan airports and surveil most of the U.S. population. It is unclear how much of the population of Canada and Mexico is also surveilled.

In response to the Journal report, the Marshals Service stated that the flying dirtboxes are used “only in furtherance of ordinary law enforcement operations, such as the apprehension of wanted individuals, and not to conduct domestic surveillance or intelligence-gathering.”


32 Responses to “Look! Up In The Air!”

  1. 7of9 Says:

    Jim666 – As long as you’re fine with your location and movements being tracked, then you should have no issues.

    BMW – The problem is that there is little to no oversight of this kind of surveillance, so it’s just as easy to track the movements or violate the privacy of anyone as it is to do it for suspected terrorists. Another issue is that almost anyone can be classified as a terrorist with little or no due process, so even if there was oversight that limited this kind of intrusion, it could easily be skirted by finding some reason why the person you’re going after is “of interest.”

    Even worse is the scale to which data for all people using a tower or traversing a point in the internet is collected. This isn’t targeting a specific person or group at all, but simply capturing everything that passes that point for datamining either now or in the future.

    The possibilities for abuse are endless.

  2. BMW Says:

    I don’t understand why this should be made public, despite the fact that it is used against us. It would be a great way to trace Al Queda or ISIS or ISUL or whatever name the throatcutting bastards call themselves today.

    Maybe the victims of this warrantless search procedure should come up with a device to detect “new” or “extra” cell tower signals? Just like the maps of “speed traps”, somewhere should exist maps of legit cell phone towers. Every cell phone system should have some. Then we can check out the “extra” signals and perhaps send them some interesting data…

    L,H&R TO ALL 1% RIDERS!!!

  3. Jim666 Says:

    I use mine for work and sometimes long distance phone calls but nothing is ever said on it, other than the usual conversations,” How`s things ? etc.”

  4. popeye Says:

    The feds can use your phone as a transmitter without you knowing it

    check it out

  5. 7of9 Says:

    “Burner” phones would be the most likely target for an “exciter,” a small, independently powered chip that would simply associate with the nearest tower periodically and, if you’re going to place one, you’re going to place it such that a user would have to destroy the phone to find or remove it. Given that these phones typically are not kept or used for extended periods, you need to worry less about battery life or longevity and more about concealment.

    There is nothing currently prohibiting this being done and the rules for who gets association records for any carrier’s cell towers are sketchy. Even if a bigger carrier did fight to keep those private (and why would they? There is no financial incentive for them and it would wind up costing time and money to fight it), at some point you ‘re almost always going to be using a smaller local carrier’s tower from whom the national carrier is buying bandwidth and THEY certainly are not going to have the savvy or stones to fight such a request.

    The same is true for your internet traffic. There is a lot between sender and receiver, providing so many ways to intercept, snoop, track locations, and other privacy invasions.

  6. Meh Says:

    “powered off” of course is still powering some circuits and is not the same as “physically removing the battery”.

    Still have found zero evidence for being able to track an unmodified phone whose unmodified battery has been physically removed.

  7. 7of9 Says:

    CN – In most cases, with most phones, the location of your cell phone can still be tracked when it is supposedly powered off – http://www.darkreading.com/risk-management/can-the-nsa-really-track-turned-off-cellphones/d/d-id/1110897? In most cases, such as when the NSA or ATF decides to track someone, it is done by altering the phone so that even when the battery is removed, it can still be tracked via a chip that is connected to the battery itself.

    Darkreading is a good website for anyone interested in security or privacy.

  8. Richard Chmiel Says:

    time to do something about these assholes. Impeach the liar and fire all those that are in agreement with all his policies ! Time for “the real people to run our govt. !”

  9. CN Says:

    Okay, so if I’m reading this thread correctly, the minor battery that all phones (flip or smart) have that keeps them on the correct day date time and remembers things like settings and memory for telephone numbers even when the main battery is removed or dies is strong enough to transmit location as well as transfer data to one of these Sky King spy planes or a stingray, hmmmmm. Really didn’t know that and really hadn’t heard about it anywhere else. As I mentioned in my prior comment, with the flip phones that are still available it’s easy to remove the battery and I thought that, that solved the problem, apparently not though and I don’t mind being wrong but kinda’ wonder why I’v never heard about this before. So, as with the prior post, could somebody please verify that this is indeed the case and not an urban myth of some sort. I mean absolutely no disrespect and would be happy to be proved wrong on this, but for as long as I’ve been around, this is the first time I’ve heard anything like this being stated as a fact. Provided that it is factual, there should be ample info out there that somebody could post backing this up. Thank you to whoever can enlighten me as to this development.


  10. Paul(PJ) Says:

    I don’t know what is worse; that we continue to see stories like this, or that I am no longer surprised.

  11. Meh Says:

    Anomalies attract attention. If a main phone is travelling where the owner would like to leave a trail the owner can be somewhere else.

    Buyers can choose burner phones with removable batteries. If the battery can be accessed by cutting the case, it can be desoldered and a switch added. No harm taking a Dremel to a throwaway after all.

    “Phones that do have removable batteries are still traceable because they still have a watch battery in them to keep you from losing all your data on them every time you remove the main battery.”

    Any battery can be disconnected/disabled with enough motivation. Whatever provides short-term RTC power could be drained by grounding through a resistor (for example) or disconnected and left off since the ideal burner couldn’t store data in the first place.

    I’m looking for evidence that a mere RTC power supply can be tracked from any distance with battery removed, to be distinguished from merely turning the phone off.

    Got any good technical links specifically dealing with tracking un-batteried phones? Powering a RTC and some storage memory is different from powering the transmit/receive circuits which are relatively power hungry.

    Either way, the problem can be solved with some hardware hacking. Time to move into the modern age.

  12. VAGO 1%er Says:

    @ Paladin
    Batteries extracted………I was wondering what happened to my pigeons.

  13. WARTHOG Says:


    Not really a simple thing. Most phones these days do not have removable batteries. Even shutting them off won’t keep them from being traceable. Phones that do have removable batteries are still traceable because they still have a watch battery in them to keep you from losing all your data on them every time you remove the main battery. Your best bet is to leave your cell phone at home. And if you’re going to do that, it would be best not to own one at all.




  14. Base Says:

    Recently (with in the last week) a story ran on our local news station on this program. Seems our state legislators have a problem with this program. They consider it an invasion of peoples right to privacy.

    The person who was hocking the program said that all the numbers collected would be deleted when the plane touches down and not stored to a external hard drive, disc or any other device. You could hear the snorts in the room and a few mumbled.

    “Yeah, I bet they will”

    Politician’s are such rotten liars.

  15. nowhereman Says:

    And that nigger just said that our country is a fucking democracy. How can you be the head of a country and not even know the type of government you are supposed to be “running”.




  16. Meh Says:

    BMW and rookery made excellent posts.

    Deconflicting burners from main phones would require arranging that burners would only be used away from any owned or frequented property and that both communicators would only have them on during arranged comm window times (kept track of by a watch, not by any phone). Calling from a single-person shithouse in an area with many phones, for example a mall, could be one way to muddy the waters.

    There should be zero assumption of secure comms on a phone, just like in the old “party line” landline days when you rang the operator to put you through.

    Not even carrier pigeons are safe.


  17. Mad Matt Says:

    I’m embarassed by what our nation has become. The USA has literally become the opposite of everything that “it stands for”. I weep because I know not what to do. The only solution is a revolution.

    FTF FTP FTW Fuck Everything

  18. Vikingtrotter Says:

    simple thing,,,,,just take out the battery from your phone…Then it’s an inert piece of plastic and you can’t be traced.

  19. Paladin Says:


    To counter the Carrier Pigeon threat, the Government would step up their Peregrine Falcon program.

    Long May You Ride,


  20. rookery Says:

    A variant of the above is used on major highways and ring roads. They sweep all the phone signals at certain points, collect the numbers then cross reference the numbers against car registrations taken by camera at roughly the same point. If you have a burner or any kind of digital device that sends a signal and travel the same route a couple of days a week its all to easy for them to narrow the parameters of who you are. A friend of mine in that field says in theory 3 journeys is enough for them (and who them ?) to nail you for further observation. carrier pigeons seem like a very attractive option these days….

  21. panamaa Says:



  22. ElleElle Says:

    The religious fanatic’s have it all wrong. Facebook isn’t the mark of the beast-it really is the number 6 on your cell phone.

    I wonder how much my life would change to just unplug from it all for awhile. Thinking seriously about doing JUST that….

  23. VAGO 1%er Says:

    Not a matter of if……….its a matter of WHEN? every Motherfucker knows this.

  24. BMW Says:

    Basically, we’re just talking about a souped-up stingray. There are lots of people who could wire one up in an afternoon. The key is the incredible number crunching that must be done with all the numbers that the souped-up stingray picks up.

    The stingray will ping all the phones like a real cell tower, and every phone that responds will give up its identity. The spies then use their fancy programs and fancy mainframes to chart the relationships that are known between the various owners of the phones. This is the same sort of thing that the FBI and NSA have been doing for years.

    The use of stingrays also unmasks burners that are turned on, and then the spies start mapping the relationships between burners and personal phones that show up at the same time and place. It’s not hard to match Joe Biker to the burner, if it only shows up when Joe Biker gets to the party…or was bought at the grocery where Joe Biker’s wife shops…or was bought with Joe Biker’s credit card…or was bought with a group of burners…you can see how the spies work.

    At this time,the only way to prevent the stingray spying is to turn a phone off, remove the battery and place the phone in a Faraday cage. The signal must be attenuated to the point that the feds can’t turn the phone on remotely. The feds will still be using the same sort of algorithms to parse out relationships using other data. But why make it easy for them?


  25. CN Says:

    There’s been a very real absence of pay phones in the last 20 years. First they made sure they couldn’t receive calls then they just got rid of them altogether, altogether that is except for one place in particular , that being wherever large populations of migrant usually Mexican Agricultural Workers reside. Prepaid phone cards embellished with the Mexican Flag and other Latino eye candy can usually be bought near where the cucumbers grow. Here in rural Dixie there’s still pay phones and plenty of customers to justify usage/profitability. For those not so situated there are still basic flip phones that have removable batteries if you want to keep one (remove the battery, remove the threat) and there’s plenty of burners that also can confuse the issue. But lets be honest, if they really want to look, listen and invade there’s very little that can be done. And, it’s not like they really need a valid reason to do just about anything they want to anymore.

    At best it’s cat and mouse. First and foremost, never say anything on a telephone of any kind you’d rather not hear repeated in a Court of Law. Forget texting anything even if you’ve figured out a really cool code, look, just don’t text shit. And, if you’ve got to carry a “smart phone” of any kind for navigation or weather, again, a burner not used for anything else (like reading this Blog or posting on it) might be best but I wouldn’t bet my freedom on it.

  26. 7of9 Says:

    This is only the tip of the iceberg. There is a lot more going on, even within the carriers. Anyone concerned with privacy should be paying a LOT more attention to those boring committee meetings that involve the FCC.

  27. Dirk Diggler Says:

    We are doomed.

  28. Paladin Says:

    I only use my cell-phone to call the auto club, in case of a flat tire or some other vehicular problem. At all other times, the phone’s turned off. Half the time, I forget to take the damn thing with me anyway. I can see where the corner pay-phone may see a strong resurgence.

    Long May You Ride (to those that deserve to)


  29. Tooj Says:

    Just the beginning…

  30. RtC Says:

    Fuck em! I don’t have & will not have a fucking cell-phone! It causes
    brain cancer! Maybe that’s why there are so many stupid people.

    RESPECTS for the REAL

Leave a Reply