The Justice Department's newest electronic dragnet--plane-mounted "dirtboxes" that can slurp thousands of cellular phone ID's from the air -- was originally developed by the CIA to hunt terrorists in the Middle East, The Wall Street Journal reports. Now however, it's being used domestically to track American citizens. That's not good.
According to a new report from the WSJ, the US Marshals Service, with assistance from both the CIA and Boeing, developed these Cessna-mounted devices. They are electronic sniffers that mimic cellular tower signals to incite any cellular telephone within range to broadcast its identifying registration information. It's essentially an aerial man-in-the-middle attack and one that has cost US taxpayers more than $100 million to create. With this information, US Marshals can effectively locate, identify, and lock on to specific cell phones -- out of a sample population of thousands or even tens of thousands of devices -- to within an accuracy of just three yards. What's more, once the suspect phone is found, Marshals can then listen in on any calls originating from it. According to the WSJ, these devices have been in operation since 2007, mounted on Cessna aircraft flying out of five metropolitan airfields throughout the US and can access a majority of the US population.
This isn't the first time that this technology has been put to use by US officials, mind you. Dirtbox technology first debuted in the Middle East where it was utilized in the hunt for terrorists in both Afghanistan and Iraq. However, this new program marks a troubling collaboration between domestic law enforcement and the nation spy agency that blurs a very important operational distinction between the two agencies.
That is, the CIA is an outward-looking agency; its purpose is to gather information from abroad regarding external threats to national security. The US Marshals (and the DOJ in general), instead is tasked with enforcing federal law here in the States. To provide the DOJ with more than a million dollars worth of equipment designed specifically to hunt people that aren't protected by the Constitution and then allow federal officials to listen in on calls may conform to the letter of the law -- as both the CIA and DOJ have asserted to the WSJ -- but it certainly doesn't conform to the spirit. And it could very well lead to further and more aggressive domestic surveillance efforts in the future.
Both the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union have already filed FOIA requests regarding the program and have requested "additional information about the Department of Justice's and Department of Homeland Security's acquisition, possession, and use of cell site simulators deployed on aircraft" ahead of any further legal action.
We've already seen that the Feds have very few qualms about utilizing digital dragnets like PRISM. This Dirtbox technology appears to signal a newfound readiness to apply these overreaching information gathering practices to not just our online lives but to our mobile devices as well.
[Image Credit: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images]