The Justice Department has been summoned to say a few words in defense of the US Marshals’ Cessna-mounted cell tower spoofers. And while it tried to leave a lot unsaid, it actually said quite a bit.
The Justice Department, without formally acknowledging the existence of the program, defended the legality of the operation by the U.S. Marshals Service, saying the agency doesn’t maintain a database of everyday Americans’ cellphones.
Because America’s criminal element is forever only moments away from permanently escaping the grasp of law enforcement, the DOJ has refused to confirm or deny the existence of technology everyone already knows exists — IMSI catchers and single-engine aircraft. The DOJ’s caginess is commendable. I’m sorry, I mean ridiculous. Here’s the same official further protecting and defending The Program That Dare Not Confirm Its Existence, using statements that indicate the program exposed by the Wall Street Journal not only exists, but functions pretty much as described.
A Justice Department official on Friday refused to confirm or deny the existence of such a program, because doing so would allow criminals to better evade law enforcement. But the official said it would be “utterly false’’ to conflate the law-enforcement program with the collection of bulk telephone records by the National Security Agency, a controversial program already being challenged in the courts and by some members of Congress.
No one’s conflating the feds’ airborne ‘Stingray’ with the NSA’s ongoing bulk phone records collections. All people have done is note that surveillance technology of this sort has the ability to collect (and store) millions of unrelated phone records in a very short period of time.
Furthermore, the unnamed official would like us to remember that this program [WHICH MAY NOT EXIST I DON’T EVEN KNOW] is completely legal [PROBABLY TWICE AS LEGAL AS THE NSA’S PHONE THING IF THIS IS HAPPENING WHICH IT MAY NOT BE].
The official didn’t address the issue of how much data, if any, is held on the dirtboxes by law-enforcement officials but said the agency doesn’t maintain any databases of general public cellphone information and said any activity is legal and “subject to court approval.’’
Other officials — also unnamed — have stepped up (sort of… in a spineless, anonymous way) to let critics know that the program that has never been officially acknowledged is pretty good at catching bad guys.
The program’s defenders say it has been an effective way of catching fugitives, including drug suspects and suspected killers…
Like the following notorious criminals:
…but they declined to provide specific examples in which it was used.
Probably because it may or may not exist, etc.
Officials familiar with the program noted that it was “minimally intrusive,” while simultaneously having an effective range that covers “most of the US population.” It may not be the NSA’s bulk records program, but it’s not exactly in any danger of being championed by civil liberties advocates.
Here are a few government officials who aren’t familiar with the implausibly denied program.
“We were not aware of this activity,’’ said Kim Hart, a spokeswoman for the FCC, which licenses and regulates cell-service providers.
Another IMSI catcher and another FCC denial. It appears that staying ahead of criminals also means withholding information (or directly lying to) regulatory agencies — which is probably not that big of a deal when you’ve spent years lying to judges.
And you can add legislators to the long list of those whose first exposure to the US Marshals’ “dirtboxes” came via the Wall Street Journal. Senators Edward Markey and Al Franken have both offered statements expressing their concerns about law enforcement’s willingness to sacrifice the public’s privacy for investigative efficiency.
The DOJ official who claimed this program is “subject to court approval” is being either blithely disingenuous or wholly dishonest. If this investigative technology had ever been approved by our nation’s courts, we would have heard of it long before now. This dearth of information indicates that the Marshals’ use of airborne IMSI catchers has been withheld the same way the use of its earthbound version has been over the past several years.