New disclosures show the Justice Department is engaged in dragnet surveillance using aircraft equipped with a device that mimics a cellphone tower and scoops up data from thousands of mobile phone users to hunt for criminal suspects.

The US Marshals Service program operates Cessna aircraft from five metropolitan airports, all equipped with a fake cellphone tower device that can trick phones into reporting their unique registration information, according to disclosures first reported by The Wall Street Journal. During a single flight, the dragnet data collection will scoop up identifying information and the general location of thousands of cellphones.

Since mobile phones are programmed to connect automatically to the strongest cellphone tower signal, the device – or “dirtbox” – used by the Marshals Service mimics this signal in order to ensure connectivity. By doing so, the surveillance program cuts out phone companies as an intermediary. The method is used to target a cellphone being used by a person under investigation by the department – a fugitive or drug dealer.

However, during the process of locating one or two suspects, thousands of others are having their data swept into government hands.

READ MORE: 80% of Americans concerned about govt surveillance online – survey

American police departments are increasingly using International Mobile Subscriber Identity Catchers (IMSIs), or Stingrays, on cars which intercept or capture the contents of phone calls, text messages, or internet activity. The Justice Department’s program, however, is airborne and can collect a greater volume of information.

People with knowledge of the program would not tell the Journal how often the flights happen, but they are regular and have a flying range covering most of the US population.

The Justice Department would neither confirm nor deny the existence of the program and said the “discussion of such matters would allow criminal suspects or foreign powers to determine US surveillance capabilities. Justice Department agencies comply with federal law, including by seeking court approval.”

READ MORE: School for spying: Harvard under fire for secret surveillance study

The program is the latest disclosure of surveillance on the American people within the US without their knowledge.

“[It’s] a dragnet surveillance program,” Christopher Soghoian, chief technologist of the American Civil Liberties Union, said to the Journal. “It’s inexcusable and it’s likely – to the extent judges are authorizing it – [that] they have no idea of the scale of it.”

READ MORE: Spying for ads: Verizon’s undeletable ‘supercookies’ track users’ web activities

Within the Marshals Service, people told the paper that some have questioned the legality of such operations and the internal safeguards. It is unclear how the Justice Department oversees the program, and whether the existence of this program is known by the telecom companies whose devices are being redirected by the so-called dirtbox.

Representatives for AT&T and Sprint did not comment on the situation, but a Verizon spokesman said the company was unaware of the program.

The security of Verizon’s network and our customers’ privacy are top priorities,” said the spokesman.“However, to be clear, the equipment referenced in the article is not Verizon’s and is not part of our network.”


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