The United States government is using planes equipped with special receivers that scoop up cellphone data from citizens below.
According to a report issued by the Wall Street Journal on Thursday afternoon, the U.S. Marshals Service (USMS) routinely flies small Cessnas that use so-called “dirtboxes” to spy on suspected criminals.
“Dirtboxes” is a nickname for Boeing’s Digital Receiver Technology, a miniature yet powerful receiver that accomplishes the work of multiple scanners linked together.
The USMS program works by exploiting cellphones’ programmed function of connecting to the strongest cell signal.
“The device being used by the U.S. Marshals Service identifies itself as having the closest, strongest signal, even though it doesn’t,” the WSJ reports. It then “forces all the phones that can detect its signal to send in their unique registration information.”
The problem is that the dirtboxes cannot distinguish one individual’s phone from another, so it collects upwards of “tens of thousands” of innocent people’s cell data in the immediate area.
And as it covers most of the population of the United States, some are comparing the program to the National Security Agency’s collection of millions of people’s phone records.
According to the USMS, the devices only keep the data of suspected criminals and “let go” of information collected from innocent people. However, it is currently unknown what steps are being taken to make sure the program follows that procedure.
USMS officials also claim they abide by the law by obtaining a judge’s warrant before sending out the Cessnas. But some are skeptical to what extent the U.S. government is giving an accurate description of the program to the judges beforehand.
In addition to collecting data, the dirtboxes also have the ability to interrupt calls. However, recent software updates prevent the devices from interrupting calls placed to 911, according to an official familiar with the project.
Earlier this year, both Popular Science and Wired ran stories about fake cell towers trying to connect to people’s cell phones. Whether the USMS program is behind these articles remains to be determined.