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Feds Prying on US Cell Phones via ‘Dirtboxes’ Fixed in Planes


The extent to which spying tactics are employed by the United States (US) can be gauged from the fact that security and law enforcing agencies have been in the eye of the storm for disregarding the privacy of citizens at the expense of collecting round the clock information. Whistleblowers have been particularly busy in the past few years by leaking confidential official information to the public and exposing the deep dark games that the government is playing with them. According to a recent report carried by The Wall Street Journal, the Justice Department is allegedly collecting data on US citizens from their cell phones via airplanes. Yes, there are eyes and ears in the sky that you have no knowledge about, but all your communications are being recorded in a specialized machine.

The report said that the US Marshals Service is allegedly involved in a task that includes operating Cessna aircrafts which carry machines that can mimic cell phone towers. The report further said that the entire setup was put in place for a specific purpose, i.e. launching “a high-tech hunt for criminal suspects.”

The problem with this method is not that it is directed at hardened criminals, but the real problem is that the machines also extract data from thousands of innocent mobile users without their consent. The two-foot-square gadgets, known as “dirtboxes” in the law enforcing circles are being used for the operations. These devices are also known as Digital Receiver Technology (DRT) that can trick cell phones into connecting with it and providing the phone’s registration information to law enforcers.

According to the sources contacted by The Wall Street Journal, the Cessnas take off on regular flights from around five metropolitan-area airports.

Deceptive Signals

The device is activated when the plane takes flight and shortly afterwards it starts searching for cell phone signals. The device shows itself as the strongest and closest network available and tricks cell phone users in a specific area to connect to the device. Registration data is extracted from all cell phones that connect to the device. Reports in the press also suggest that the device is so strong and efficient that even devices that are encrypted by default (Apple and Google devices in particular) are unable to block the signals from the fake tower.

Google has recently marketed its Android L operating system that is encrypted by default. Apple has done the same with its iPhone 6 (iOS 8 operating system). Though encryption has always been available on Android since 2011, a large number of common users had no idea how to turn on this option on their cell phones. Both these tech giants have taken intense precaution on their latest mobile devices because the Edward Snowden leaks had revealed quite a lot about the National Security Agency’s (NSA) spying operation and how mobile devices were vulnerable to expert hacker attacks. Other important news related to data breach in the ongoing year involved the nude celebrity photo leaks that were hacked from cloud accounts. It was therefore only a matter of time before companies started taking measures to make their communication device safer than before.

Purpose of the Operation

The operation is primarily directed at fugitives and drug dealers. Normal citizens become a part of the sweep because the program collects data in bulk which is later analyzed to extract useful information from thousands of files. The rest of the data is destroyed to make space for new data collected from different areas marked during the operation.

A few months earlier the NSA was in the center of controversy when statistics about the agency’s spying reach were revealed. It is believed that NSA has positioned itself in such a way that it could maintain surveillance on approximately 75 percent of all web traffic in the US, along with monitoring communications taking place between US and foreign citizens.

This news report has made one thing obvious and clear; the spy and security agencies in the US are not willing to cut down surveillance on US citizens at any cost because incidents of this nature are increasing in number with each passing day. Loopholes in the law regarding public privacy and security allow law enforcers to manipulate the system to their advantage. Pro-privacy and civil society activist raise hue and cry over every incident of this nature. Then it’s back to business as usual. Legislation in this regard is required at the earliest to give back the public their rights.