Americans' cellphones subject to sweeping government surveillance

Americans' cellphones subject to sweeping government surveillance
Since 2007, the United States Marshals Service has been operating a program where aircraft it operates are equipped with devices designed to imitate cell towers for the purposes of gathering unique mobile phone registration data.

These devices, similar to the StingRay equipment used by law enforcement on the ground, are called “dirtboxes,” derived from the name of the company that makes them, DRT, Inc. (Digital Recovery Technology), which is a subsidiary of Boeing.

These dirtboxes are installed on Cessna aircraft operated out of five airports situated around larger cities, allowing the Marshals to canvass most of the population. In flight, the dirtboxes will scan data from any cellphones it can identify, tricking them into thinking they are connected to a site operated by one of the major wireless carriers.

The cellphones will report their unique identifiers, known as an IMSI (International Mobile Subscriber Identity), to the dirtbox. Out of this dragnet method of gathering data (similar to the NSA methodology), the Marshals would identify their target of surveillance, and the dirtbox “lets go” of all other cellphone data collected in the process.

Surveillance targets are what you would expect, suspected fugitives, drug dealers, and the like. Court orders are obtained to authorize the use of the dirtbox. However, as one might also expect, organizations like the ACLU raise valid privacy concerns, “It’s inexcusable and it’s likely – to the extent judges are authorizing it – [that] they have no idea of the scale of it,” according to Christopher Soghoian, chief technologist with the ACLU.

Use of the dirtbox has been known to cause problems by interrupting calls in progress, raising concerns that 911 calls could get dropped. Software updates have apparently alleviated that issue. The way this system works, bypasses any encryption or security of data on the phone because the dirtbox mimics a cell tower so perfectly that the devices give up the IMSI without any issue.

What is even more telling about this program, is that it bypasses the carriers completely. In lieu of asking for location data from the provider, the Marshals are able to obtain it directly, and arguably more accurately, apparently within 10 feet. Newer versions of this technology reportedly also have the ability to jam signals discretely, or retrieve data within the device, such as SMS, MMS, or photos.

Concerns outside, and within the Marshals Service have been raised about how diligently non-suspect data has been handled or “dropped.” While it is seen as completely “legal” compared to other surveillance programs, the ethical question of if this method of surveillance “should” be done. Compared to a ground-based StingRay system, which might scan a couple hundred devices, an airborne platform is gathering tens-of-thousands of users’ data.

Also alienated in this program are the carriers, who have a vested interested in maintaining security of their networks, and other technology companies who have been striving to protect user data in the wake of the NSA scandal. This government backed “man-in-the-middle” tactic could further motivate companies to challenge warrants, National Security Letters, and other requests for information even more.

To make the story even more interesting, the dirtbox is able to gather IMSI data even if the device is not in use. That is according to a regulatory filing made by Boeing in 2010 to the US Department of Commerce. It was a report discussing the success the dirtbox had in finding contraband cellphones that had been smuggled into prisons.

source: The Wall Street Journal (subscription required)



1. DeusExCellula

Posts: 1390; Member since: Oct 05, 2014


4. 14545

Posts: 1835; Member since: Nov 22, 2011

I love when the sheep get all stupid around any militaristic holiday and run around claiming this.

5. aksa123

Posts: 367; Member since: Jan 30, 2014

They are "free" to watch over you.

2. 0xFFFF

Posts: 3806; Member since: Apr 16, 2014

Freedom Fries Forever

3. Xenaz

Posts: 144; Member since: Apr 28, 2013

Information Technology may have makes our life easier and more convenient, but it also enable someone to manipulate us by manipulating the information that either own by ourselves or others without our acknowledgement. The more we depend on technologies, the more we are easier to be manipulated.

6. GoBears

Posts: 456; Member since: Apr 27, 2012

You're also free to leave anytime you wish.

7. mturby unregistered

at least catch the terrorist!

8. nghtwng68

Posts: 108; Member since: Nov 26, 2009

Only in America!!!!

9. TerryTerius unregistered

Honestly, the naivety of people that think ANY global power isn't doing this is astounding. Regardless as to whether or not it's publicly admitted, i'm pretty damn sure virtually every major world power has similar programs in use. You don't like it, then vote and/or protest, make your voices known. Or stop using tech and move to a third world country. Your two choices. But sitting behind your keyboard and complaining will change absolutely nothing.

10. techloverNYC

Posts: 601; Member since: Nov 20, 2012

You couldn't have said it any better man. Never understand those ppl that complain about these issues, like every first world country probably does it. Compare to third world countries, we should be thankful that we actually have the technologies to protect or prevent us in the event of attack or danger. P.S: Most of us should not be worry. Face it we are not that interesting or important, government won't care about us as an individual.

12. Augustine

Posts: 1043; Member since: Sep 28, 2013

You may not worry, but you should. The law of the land requires the government to prove probable cause to interfere with the privacy of a person. In the lack of specific cause, the government cannot in any circumstance spy on you. In this case, the government is breaking the law; law enforcement is selectively not enforcing the law. If you're not worried, you're not paying attention.

15. strudelz100

Posts: 646; Member since: Aug 20, 2014

So we should follow the governments laws, and give them a huge chunk of our money, when they ignore our rights and laws don't apply to them? No thanks. Ignorance IS bliss in your case buddy.

11. Augustine

Posts: 1043; Member since: Sep 28, 2013

Why does the fact that the US are not the only country doing something that belongs to a police state and not to a free democracy precludes criticism? And when the laws of the land have been corrupted to the core without anything beyond a perfunctory oversight, how effective is voting or protesting? Finally, when you suggest another fellow countryman to get out of the country if he dares to dissent, you're being a tyrant.

17. TerryTerius unregistered

I didn't say it didn't, nor did I even imply that. I said that people act like the U.S is unique in this (which we aren't) NEVER did I say that made my country beyond reproach. Simply stated that people seem to genuinely believe it's only our government that is engaging in these types of activities and that they're behaving differently than the other world powers. Please point out where I even implied that meant people shouldn't complain? Aside from that you totally didn't read what I said. I said either do something or stop complaining. You can either VOTE, PROTEST, (or otherwise take some action, start an awareness campaign, etc) or you can do the ultimate and shun technology or leave the country. BOTH would be better than sitting behind a keyboard and bitching without actually doing anything. I never said just get out of the country if you disagree with the way things are working, nor did I even imply that. You're both putting words in my mouth and skewing my statements.

20. asrr62

Posts: 56; Member since: Sep 14, 2011

i dont know what world you see. you cant vote, the corporations are the only ones that can do that. and protesting is enough to get beat up by the police. wake up!

21. TerryTerius unregistered

If you ever to effect change the literal only way to do that is via voting. When you do not vote you are doing what corporations want you to do. Your argument is invalid. Not voting only keeps those in power who are already in power. If you want to make any change this single solitary effective tool you have in your arsenal is the vote. And that is a fact. And the only reason why America is the way it is, is because people do not vote for either ballot initiatives or representatives who actually stand for what the people want. And that's as simple as it is. I'm awake thank you very much. If you don't participate, you up are part of the problem and not buy any stretch of the imagination a solution.

22. TerryTerius unregistered

want to effect*

13. isprobi

Posts: 797; Member since: May 30, 2011

The article says "The way this system works, bypasses any encryption or security of data on the phone". So does that mean that even if I encrypt my phone this device can read my personal data like messages, contacts and documents? If so then it is an unlawful search and seizure.

16. strudelz100

Posts: 646; Member since: Aug 20, 2014

Yes they are violating the law. There's no semantics needed. The government is violating the law and our rights as Americans. Period.

18. TerryTerius unregistered

The problem is that the Intelligence Complex has gotten so large and has so much financial reward invested in it for third parties (who also line the pockets of law-makers) they can simply quietly change the law to make it legal if they wish. This is the core reality of the problems that money in politics create.

14. Crispin_Gatieza

Posts: 3147; Member since: Jan 23, 2014

All this technology to find an IMSI within a certain geographical area. The Marshals are assuming that the criminal they're looking for has a legit service agreement with a carrier which has recorded his ICCID and other info. Much ado about nothing. Want to hide your cellphone? Talk to a cheating husband, they know all the tricks.

19. Augustine

Posts: 1043; Member since: Sep 28, 2013

Since a determined criminal could easily clone the IMSI everyday and the police would have no way to find out which one he's using at any moment, this surveillance only works against ordinary citizens. Think of recording all IMSI in use at a protest in Ferguson or in Oakland and then adding such records to a database of dissidents. If this can be done, it will, because the government is made up of useless people who cannot hold a productive job and are have proven to be willing to do whatever it costs to keep on living off the workers.

Latest Stories

This copy is for your personal, non-commercial use only. You can order presentation-ready copies for distribution to your colleagues, clients or customers at or use the Reprints & Permissions tool that appears at the bottom of each web page. Visit for samples and additional information.