U.S. Justice Department Accused of Using Fake Cell Towers on Planes to Gather Data From Phones

The United States Justice Department has been using fake communications towers installed in airplanes to acquire cellular phone data for tracking down criminals, reports The Wall Street Journal. The program has reportedly been in place since 2007 and uses Cessna airplanes that operate out of "at least five" metropolitan-area airports.

Aircraft in the program out outfitted with "dirtbox" devices produced by Boeing that are designed to mimic cellular towers, fooling cellphones into reporting "unique registration information" to track down "individuals under investigation." According to the WSJ, these devices let investigators gather "identifying information and general location" data from thousands of cellular phones in one flight, and Apple's encryption policies don't prevent the collection of data.

fakecellphonetowersplane

Cellphones are programmed to connect automatically to the strongest cell tower signal. The device being used by the U.S. Marshals Service identifies itself as having the closest, strongest signal, even though it doesn't, and forces all the phones that can detect its signal to send in their unique registration information. Even having encryption on one's phone, such as Apple Co. 's iPhone 6 now includes, doesn't prevent this process.

The technology is aimed at locating cellphones linked to individuals under investigation by the government, including fugitives and drug dealers, but it collects information on cellphones belonging to people who aren't criminal suspects, these people said. They said the device determines which phones belong to suspects and "lets go" of the non-suspect phones.

The fake tower devices are able to interrupt calls on "certain phones," with authorities attempting to minimize harm by ensuring they doesn't interrupt emergency calls, and the technology can pinpoint a suspect's cellphone location down to three meters.

The program is run by the U.S. Marshals Service, and some individuals involved have raised concerns about the legality of the operation and "if there are effective procedures" in place to safeguard the handling of data acquired, as it is said to capture data from thousands of non-criminal individuals as well.

It is not known how often the flights take place as the WSJ's sources did not divulge that information, but they reportedly "take place on a regular basis." Justice Department officials did not confirm or deny the existence of the program when questioned, stating that a discussion of the matter could "allow criminal suspects or foreign powers to determine U.S. surveillance capabilities," but a representative said that Justice Department agencies comply with federal law and seek court approval for their activities.

A Verizon spokesperson said that the company was not aware of such a program and did not participate, while spokespeople from AT&T and Sprint declined to comment.

Note: Due to the political nature of the discussion regarding this topic, the discussion thread is located in our Politics, Religion, Social Issues forum. All forum members and site visitors are welcome to read and follow the thread, but posting is limited to forum members with at least 100 posts.

Top Rated Comments

jeblis Avatar
88 months ago
our enemies don't have borders anymore. if it means capturing the next terrorist and their cell, go for it. I'm not doing anything wrong, so i'm not worried
If you're not doing anything wrong then I suppose you don't mind letting police into your home and letting them search your phone, email and hard drives. Shouldn't be a problem. You're not doing anything wrong, you don't have anything to hide.
Score: 75 Votes (Like | Disagree)
R3k Avatar
88 months ago
I'm not doing anything wrong, so i'm not worried
There is probably something you're doing wrong.
Score: 53 Votes (Like | Disagree)
bradl Avatar
88 months ago
Law enforcement agencies still need to get court warrants before they can conduct this kind of surveillance, so it is not like our constitutional rights are being violated.

I don't see anywhere in the article where a warrant is needed for this. They are not searching your phone for your data, as they are going through an intermediary. If anything, the 4th Amendment wouldn't apply, as all they would need to do is get a subpoena from the phone companies to use their towers. Nothing more.


our enemies don't have borders anymore. if it means capturing the next terrorist and their cell, go for it. I'm not doing anything wrong, so i'm not worried

Martin Niemöller (http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10007392) was a prominent Protestant pastor who emerged as an outspoken public foe of Adolf Hitler and spent the last seven years of Nazi rule in concentration camps.

He was best known for the following quote:


First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Just because you aren't doing anything wrong doesn't mean you should be complicit in what is happening. That type of non-action implies that you also condone it.

BL.
Score: 35 Votes (Like | Disagree)
LucasLand Avatar
88 months ago
our enemies don't have borders anymore. if it means capturing the next terrorist and their cell, go for it. I'm not doing anything wrong, so i'm not worried
Score: 31 Votes (Like | Disagree)
Populism Avatar
88 months ago
I'm not doing anything wrong, so i'm not worried

You're holding it wrong.
Score: 29 Votes (Like | Disagree)
JeffyTheQuik Avatar
88 months ago
I don't trust a government that doesn't trust me with a phone.
Score: 26 Votes (Like | Disagree)

Top Stories

REC ASA CODE2016 20160601 205816 2745

Elon Musk Reportedly Demanded to Become Apple CEO as Part of Potential Tesla Acquisition [Update: Musk Denies]

Friday July 30, 2021 9:04 am PDT by
Tesla CEO Elon Musk reportedly once demanded that he be made Apple CEO in a brief discussion of a potential acquisition with Apple's current CEO, Tim Cook. The claim comes in a new book titled "Power Play: Tesla, Elon Musk and the Bet of the Century," as reviewed by The Los Angeles Times. According to the book, during a 2016 phone call between Musk and Cook that touched on the possibility of ...
General Apps Messages

Android iMessage Competitor Puts Pressure on Apple

Friday July 30, 2021 3:15 am PDT by
Google and the three major U.S. carriers, including Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile, will all support a new communications protocol on Android smartphones starting in 2022, a move that puts pressure on Apple to adopt a new cross-platform messaging standard and may present a challenge to iMessage. Verizon recently announced that it is planning to adopt Messages by Google as its default messaging...
a15 chip

iPhone 13 and Redesigned MacBook Pro Chip Production Hit With Gas Contamination

Friday July 30, 2021 5:44 am PDT by
The most important TSMC factory that manufactures Apple's chips destined for next-generation iPhone and Mac models has been hit by a gas contamination, according to Nikkei Asia. The factory, known as "Fab 18," is TSMC's most advanced chipmaking facility. TSMC is Apple's sole chip supplier, making all of the processors used in every Apple device with a custom silicon chip. Industry...
Apple watch series 5 new case material made of titanium 091019

Titanium Apple Watch Series 6 Models Currently Widely Unavailable

Sunday August 1, 2021 6:21 am PDT by
Models of the Apple Watch Series 6 with titanium cases part of the "Apple Watch Edition" collection is currently widely unavailable for pick-up in several of Apple's retail stores in the United States and is unavailable entirely for delivery in major markets. Noted by Bloomberg's Mark Gurman in the latest edition of his "Power On" newsletter, titanium models of the Apple Watch Series 6,...
iPhone 13 Always On Feature

iPhone 13 to Bring Over a Major Feature From the Apple Watch

Wednesday July 28, 2021 2:21 am PDT by
Apple's upcoming iPhone 13 lineup will feature an always-on display akin to the Apple Watch Series 5 and Series 6, according to recent reports. In his weekly Power On newsletter, Bloomberg journalist Mark Gurman, who often reveals accurate insights into Apple's plans, said that the iPhone 13 may feature an Apple Watch-inspired always-on mode. The Apple Watch Series 5 and Apple Watch...
apple rtp land

Apple Preparing to Occupy 200,000 Square Feet of Temporary Space Ahead of New $1 Billion North Carolina Campus

Thursday July 29, 2021 9:14 am PDT by
Back in April, Apple announced a $430 billion investment over the next five years to create more than 20,000 new jobs as the company continues to expand. One significant piece of that plan is a new engineering and research center in North Carolina where Apple will be investing over $1 billion and hiring at least 3,000 employees. Assemblage of seven properties in Research Triangle Park owned by ...
telegram

Bumper Telegram Update Enables Video Calls With Up to 1,000 Viewers

Saturday July 31, 2021 12:13 am PDT by
Telegram Messenger has received a major update to its video capabilities, including support for video calls with up to 1,000 viewers. Group video calls in Telegram allow up to 30 users to stream video from both their camera and their screen, and now a maximum of 1,000 people can tune into the broadcast. Telegram says it intends to continue increasing this limit "until all humans on Earth...
app store blue banner

Elon Musk: Apple's App Store Fees Are a 'De Facto Global Tax on the Internet'

Friday July 30, 2021 10:04 am PDT by
Tesla CEO Elon Musk took to Twitter today to criticize Apple's App Store fees in a tweet that sides with Epic in the ongoing Epic v. Apple dispute. "Epic is right," wrote Musk, before going on to call Apple's App Store fees a "de facto global tax on the Internet." Musk earlier this week made veiled comments about App Store fees, but today's statement is a much more direct criticism....
FaceID iMac REREREREMIX

Top Stories: Face ID on Future Macs, Elon Musk Criticizes Apple, and More

Saturday July 31, 2021 6:00 am PDT by
This week saw an interesting range of Apple news and rumors, including a blockbuster earnings report, rumors about next year's "iPhone 14" and Face ID coming to Macs, and more. Subscribe to the MacRumors YouTube channel for more videos. Other popular topics included Apple's crackdown on leaks, changes in the latest round of betas for iOS 15, iPadOS 15, and macOS Monterey, and several stories...
duracell battery bitter coating

Apple Says Don't Buy AirTag Replacement Batteries With Bitter Coating

Wednesday July 28, 2021 11:08 am PDT by
Since AirTags were just released earlier this year and are expected to have a year-long battery life, it may be some time yet before AirTag users need a replacement battery, but when the time comes for a refresh, Apple is warning customers not to buy batteries with a bitter coating. AirTags use coin-shaped CR2032 batteries, which happen to be a size that's easy to swallow. Some battery...