The Texas National Guard has added cellphone spying technology to its surveillance aircraft to assist the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in counternarcotics operations.
According to contract documents obtained by the Texas Observer’s Melissa del Bosque, the Texas National Guard spent over $373,000 last year on the controversial cell-site simulators.
The devices, purchased with drug-asset forfeiture money from Maryland-based Digital Receiver Technology Inc. (DRT), are designed to locate cellphones within a certain range by emulating a cell tower.
The specific model obtained by the Texas National Guard, known as the DRT 1301C, is even capable of intercepting and recording phone calls in real-time.
A leaked U.S. government catalogue of cellphone surveillance devices obtained by The Intercept in 2015 also notes the ability of the DRT 1301C, nicknamed the “dirt box,” to “locate up to 10,000 targets and can process multiple analog and digital wireless devices all at the same time.”
The Observer notes that the dirt boxes were installed in two RC-26 surveillance planes used for counternarcotics operations.
Questions have now begun to arise over the legality of the Texas National Guard’s actions given their intended role and mission scope.
“[T]he Texas National Guard is a military force under the governor’s command, not law enforcement,” del Bosque writes. “It’s unclear under what legal authorities the State Guard would be operating to conduct electronic eavesdropping.”
When questioned by the Observer, the Texas National Guard reportedly refused to explain how or if it had obtained a warrant prior to using the devices.
Government agencies who have purchased similar technology in the past have pointed to nondisclosure agreements with the manufacturers as reasoning for keeping knowledge of the devices hidden from the public.
Given the technology’s ability to gather wide swaths of data, civil liberties advocates fear that countless innocent cell phone users are being affected while the dirt boxes are in use.
“These DRT boxes are far more capable than the old Stingrays,”Austin-based attorney Scott McCollough told the Observer. “The old-style Stingrays were not able to capture content. Guess what? The DRT box is… These newer ones get everything.”
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has found that law enforcement in at least 24 states is currently employing the technology.
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