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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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