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.”