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Timm writes: "It sounds like a movie plot, but in a remarkable report published on Thursday, the Wall Street Journal exposed that these spy planes are part of an actual mass surveillance program overseen by the Justice Department (DOJ). And it's been kept secret from the public for years."

(illustration: unknown)
(illustration: unknown)

First Snowden, Now Spies on a Plane. Yes, Surveillance Is Everywhere

By Trevor Timm, Guardian UK

15 November 14


S government-owned airplanes that can cover most of the continental United States are covertly flying around the country, spying on tens of thousands of innocent people’s cellphones. It sounds like a movie plot, but in a remarkable report published on Thursday, the Wall Street Journal exposed that these spy planes are part of an actual mass surveillance program overseen by the Justice Department (DOJ). And it’s been kept secret from the public for years.

The Journal explained that the US Marshals Service, a sub-agency under DOJ’s control, has a small fleet of Cessna airplanes that are currently armed with high-tech surveillance gear called “dirtboxes” – essentially fake cell towers tricking your phone into connecting to them – that can vacuum the identifying information and location of ten of thousands of phones in a single flight.

The Marshalls allegedly use the mass spying planes to locate suspects, but of course the vast, vast majority of phones they end up spying on belong to completely innocent individuals. Per the Journal’s Devlin Barrett:

The U.S. Marshals Service program, which became fully functional around 2007, operates Cessna aircraft from at least five metropolitan-area airports, with a flying range covering most of the U.S. population, according to people familiar with the program.

On Friday, the Justice Department denied the US Marshals Service are keeping a database on innocent Americans cellphone data from the spying program – but it also refused to confirm or deny if the program even exists.

You might ask: Why are the US Marshals – the fugitive-chasing agents of Tommy Lee Jones lore – get the authority to launch this type of mass surveillance operation at all? That’s unclear, but thanks to some digging by the surveillance crowd on Twitter shortly after the Journal published its story, we know the marshals are far from the only US agency using dirtboxes.

Documents unearthed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Dave Maass showed that the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) is using dirtboxes along the southwestern border. Other documents tweeted out by the ACLU’s Chris Soghoian show Immigrations and Customs Enforcement use them too, and we know also the Department of Homeland Security has at least discussed attaching cellphone interception gear to the large Predator surveillance drones that are roaming along our border (and often times far inside).

Then there’s the FBI, which, if it’s not using dirtboxes specifically, is certainly employing a very similar and frightening tactic in and around the Washington DC area. Last year Matthew Aid reported in Foreign Policy:

The FBI also uses a wide range of vehicles and airborne surveillance assets to monitor the movements and activities of foreign diplomats and intelligence operatives in Washington and New York. Some of the vans, aircraft, and helicopters used by the FBI for this purpose are equipped with equipment capable of intercepting cell-phone calls and other electronic forms of communication.

The plane surveillance operation’s on-the-ground forebearer – commonly known as a Stingray, which is like a dirtbox on wheels – has been the topic of growing controversy of late, given that cops are increasingly using Stingrays to collect cellphone information on entire neighborhoods, then teaming up with the feds to cover up the whole thing.

The US government has spent untold millions of dollars spreading Stingrays to local police around the country. Check out the ACLU’s ever-expanding map of which police agencies are operating them and in which state. And now we have planes flying all over the country doing essentially the same thing from the sky? If that’s not illegal, as unnamed government officials claimed it isn’t, it certainly should be.

As the ACLU’s Chris Soghoian told the Journal about dirtboxes: “it’s likely – to the extent judges are authorizing it – [that] they have no idea of the scale of it.” This isn’t unfounded speculation. A judge in Texas recently rejected the government’s request to use a Stingray because they failed to adequately explain to the court what they were doing. Emails released earlier this year through the Freedom of Information Act showed that the US Marshal’s service was literally encouraging local police to deceive judges into believing information obtained through Stingrays were actually coming from a “confidential source”.

The even more shocking part has been Congress’ relative silence on this blatant domestic spying abuse. As Newsweek’s Jeff Stein reported in September, some members of Congress received a demonstration of the capabilities of this technology a few years ago and they know that foreign governments are using dirtbox devices inside the US as well, but beyond Rep Alan Grayson’s sharp letter to the FCC recently, hardly anyone in Congress has even brought it up.

Where’s the Congressional investigation? Our elected representatives have at least feigned concern about the NSA’s massive surveillance programs exposed in the past year and a half, and they may finally get around to doing something about it next week. But now we have planes literally spies on a plane, snooping exclusively on Americans, on a massive scale – and so far, not a peep. That’s not an action movie; that’s a horror show. your social media marketing partner


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+19 # RMDC 2014-11-15 20:44
"The Marshalls allegedly use the mass spying planes to locate suspects"

It does not take much thinking to know that the ordinary citizen is the real "suspect" or enemy of the US regime. The era of democracy is over and the neo-cons who have seized control of the US government don't intend to give it back even if the people demand it. They are preparing for war against the people of the US when it becomes all too clear that the US has become a police/military dictatorship committed to endless war all over the world.

The US government is building files on everyone in the US. They are profiled and ranked on how safe or dangerous they are. Anyone can be arrested and framed for any crime. Lives can be ruined by a simple visit by the FBI to a boss to inquire about you. It happened to me.

Spying is not about foreign enemies. They don't care about the US. They just want the US regime to leave them alone. But the US regime does not intend to leave anyone alone. It wants everyone on earth to work like a slave and pay taxes to the US. We are heading for a global slavery.
+10 # DaveM 2014-11-15 23:06
Allow me, if you will, to spin a bit of a tale. Let's assume that the activities and whereabouts of a population can be tracked constantly. Let us also assume that there are records kept of the economic "impact" placed on that population's system by each individual. Some, after all, will have more money, pay more in taxes, spend more, and otherwise contribute to the "pool". Others will be receiving large amounts of medical care, receiving government subsidies of some sort, not paying taxes due to low income or participation in the underground economy, and so on.

Now let's assume that a basic cost/benefit analysis is performed using this information. And that it becomes possible to determine which members of the population are more valuable to the whole because of their contributions, and which are more valuable to the greater population by being exploited in some way. Perhaps by being imprisoned and used as a source of cheap labor. Perhaps by being labeled as chronic psychiatric patients and becoming forced consumers of pharmaceuticals produced by "contributing" members, or being made to spend time in "residential treatment centers" and similar--facili ties operated by those regarded by this particularly cold equation as "contributors". Remember that the movements and whereabouts of all population members are known to those in power at all times.

That could never happen....could it....?
+15 # maverita 2014-11-16 01:53
who needs surveillance. i reported child abuse- and instead of letting me email the photos of bruises, they took my cell phone for two hours and told me they were sweeping up everything in my phone (but we only keep the photos they said) browser history, podcasts, text messages, calendar, contacts, etc... they made me sign something giving them permission but seemed inconvenienced when i asked for a copy. they did provide a copy, but grumbled. i will think twice before providing photo evidence sgain. had i known i could have used my canon, not my smart phone!! and btw, the 9&10 year old children are still with the alcoholic father who beats them and locks them outside all night. trying to find evidence that the court will take seriously is impeded because we are not allowed to invade the privacy of the abuser, but the cops can download your whole life to access a picture of bruises.
+3 # Glen 2014-11-16 06:35
Anybody see the movie Eyeborg? Anybody out there paying attention to science fiction over the decades? The future is now here and watching all of us.

Maverita gave an excellent example of the inevitable end game that was coming 20 years ago, and is why folks will now rarely come forth with information in child abuse crimes. School principals years ago were very careful not to report abuse hastily due to all manner of social work complications and invasion. Let's hope they continue to be careful how they report these instances. We all should.
+1 # 2014-11-16 09:54
LEFT...RIGHT... .MIDDLE.....It doesn't matter.
"The responsibility of a patriot is to protect his country from its government"
Thomas Paine
+4 # reiverpacific 2014-11-16 11:24
LEFT...RIGHT....MIDDLE.....It doesn't matter.
"The responsibility of a patriot is to protect his country from its government"
Thomas Paine

O' c'mon; you just shoved that in y'r post criticizing Noam Chomsky in the lead article of this RSN set.
Getting' a bit pushed for quotes are you?
How about the "Patriot Act", rushed through both houses without any time to read it and which is the harbinger of the "Nasty Spy Agency".
You canna have it both ways.
I've noticed that those who howl about "Patriotism" and "Freedom", are the first to interpret the latter negatively if it doesn't agree with their blindly conformist ideas of it's meaning and to take the latter away from any dissident who dares see it in a broader context.
The walls are moving in on YOU too.
+4 # Vardoz 2014-11-16 13:26
Our Congress and senate are afraid to confront these entities.

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