Federal Marshals are flying Cessnas around that pretend to be cellular-service relay towers so that every mobile phone in their range will register and thus give away its unique identity and location, according to the Wall Street Journal.
The story, which appears in today’s Wall Street Journal, says that the U.S. Marshals Service—tasked with catching fugitives among other things—uses the system to locate suspected criminals by finding their cellular signal. The article says that even phones not currently involved in a conversation could be picked up, tens of thousands of them in a single flight. What’s more, the system works even on encrypted phones, like the iPhone 6, because the point is not to listen in but to find out who’s talking, and where. It’s unclear what becomes of the phone data from non-suspects.
One source quoted in the story was Christopher Soghoian, the chief technologist for the American Civil Liberties Union. It so happens that a day earlier he had visited the IEEE Spectrum offices, where I’d interviewed him for a profile to be published in a future issue. He’d mentioned an emerging story that he couldn't discuss; this would appear to be that story.
Or maybe it’s just the appetizer: Soghoian has helped uncover many cases of exuberant govermental surveillance. Just two weeks ago he broke a story—by Tweeting it—that an agent for the Federal Bureau of Investigation had once pretended to be a reporter for the Associated Press in order to sneak snoopware onto a Web site linked to suspected criminals.
On Wednesday Soghoian told me that technology has allowed governments to expand their snooping far beyond the control of judges, who some say are armed with the legal standards of an earlier time.
"In the old movies, when the FBI was listening to your phone there'd be a guy in a van outside your house," he said Wednesday. "Surveillance was expensive, so the police had to focus their resources; today, it’s too cheap and too easy."
Here’s the gist of the WSJ story: The U.S. Marshalls Service has for some time been flying Cessnas out of five airfields that together put the bulk of the country’s population within range. The planes carry devices called dirtboxes, after the initials of their manufacturer, Digital Receiver Technology Inc., now owned by Boeing. Each box sends out a signal that mimics that of a cellphone service provider—Verizon, say, or T-Mobile. It thus tricks subscribing phones into “pinging” back a response, which the box can then use to identify and locate the phone.
The article cites an unnamed source as saying that the activity is legal, if inadvisable, as well as other, also unnamed sources, in the U.S. Department of Justice, who did question its legality, at least within U.S. borders. Until now, most of the controversy over government surveillance has centered on the overseas snooping conducted by the National Security Agency (NSA).
The article quotes Soghoian as saying that the U.S. Marshalls Service is running “a dragnet surveillance program. It’s inexcusable and it’s likely—to the extent judges are authorizing it—[that] they have no idea of the scale of it.”
Philip E. Ross is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. His interests include transportation, energy storage, AI, and the economic aspects of technology. He has a master's degree in international affairs from Columbia University and another, in journalism, from the University of Michigan.