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US Marshals Have Their Own Cellphone Data Slurpfest

By Richard Adhikari
Nov 18, 2014 7:15 AM PT
us-marshals-cellphone-data-cessna-airplanes

The United States Marshals Service is grabbing data from thousands, if not millions, of Americans' cellphones using high-tech devices deployed on five Cessnas, The Wall Street Journal reported last week.

The aircraft operate out of at least five metro-area airports and apparently can cover most of the U.S. population.

They are equipped with DRT boxes, popularly known as "dirtboxes," made by a subsidiary of Boeing.

The DRT boxes gather the IMSI numbers -- a cellphone's unique identifier -- and geolocation data from all cellphones within their range.

The Cessnas reportedly make regular flights.

The U.S. Marshals office referred TechNewsWorld to the U.S. Department of Justice, which did not respond to our request to comment for this story.

A Shame and a Scandal?

"This is really turning our cellphones into true portable tracking devices," Chris Calabrese, senior policy director at the Center for Democracy & Technology, told TechNewsWorld.

"The government is recognizing very few limits on how they can do this," he continued.

"They seem to feel it's OK to do wholesale targeting of innocent people as long as they think there's some kind of criminal out there somewhere," Calabrese said.

"There are some serious and troubling legal questions about this program," Hanni Fakhouri, staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told TechNewsWorld.

He called on the U.S. Marshals to explain how the program works and what kind of court authorization, if any, it has obtained to operate it.

It's Only Basic Data

"There's a lot of excitement about this program which is unwarranted, and the fact of the matter is we're still talking about communications that do not have any content," said Darren Hayes, a professor at Pace University's Seidenberg School of Computer Science.

The U.S. Marshals Service "is not connecting to any of your actual communications," he told TechNewsWorld. "It's not like the far-reaching, intrusive communications capture the NSA is conducting."

Nothing Exceeds Like Excess

The use of dirtboxes "does seem like overkill," Hayes admitted.

Drug law violations accounted for 1.5 million arrests in the U.S. last year, and there were 387 violent crimes and 2,900 property crimes per 100,000 people in 2012.

"The issue at hand is that the DoJ is collecting data in bulk without warrants, and without the reasonable suspicion that the people whose data they are collecting have engaged in any criminal activity," said Jackie Bodnar, a spokesperson at FreedomWorks.

"I have not seen any evidence that this warrantless surveillance has been effective at catching criminals," she told TechNewsWorld.

What's a DRT Box?

"DRT" is the abbreviation of "Digital Receiver Technology," a company formerly known as "Utica Systems." Boeing purchased DRT in 2008. DRT makes wireless location and management technologies that emulate a base station to detect and locate wireless handsets in a limited geographic area, according to Boeing.

DRT boxes also are used by the FBI, according to Top Level Telecommunications.

The NSA's Boundless Informant tool reportedly also uses DRT boxes.

Honesty Is Such a Lonely Word

Americans are concerned about government data collection. Eighty percent of the participants in a Pew Research survey agreed or strongly agreed that citizens should be concerned about government surveillance of communications.

Fears over privacy intrusion are an obvious reason, but Americans also may be concerned about the NSA and law enforcement's being less than honest about what they're up to.

For example, the DoJ essentially lied to an appeals court during a hearing on the constitutionality of National Security Letters, the EFF has asserted.

"We know the NSA stores all the data they collect," Bodnar said, "and there's no reason to expect the DoJ to suddenly be responsible and discard our data."


Richard Adhikari has written about high-tech for leading industry publications since the 1990s and wonders where it's all leading to. Will implanted RFID chips in humans be the Mark of the Beast? Will nanotech solve our coming food crisis? Does Sturgeon's Law still hold true? You can connect with Richard on Google+.


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