The Wall Street Journal just revealed that the federal government has been secretly using small planes to collect data from thousands of mobile phones.
The planes are equipped with devices known as "dirtboxes," which are essentially fake cell phone towers. By mimicking cell towers of major telecommunications firms, these devices trick cell phones into reporting their unique registration information and location.
Whenever you turn on your cell phone, it sends out a signal to the nearest cell tower, usually one connected with your provider. Every cell phone user has a unique identifier, much like a name-tag, which reveals who owns the phone. The dirtboxes essentially pretend to be the closest cell phone tower with the strongest signal, fooling nearby phones into sending their unique registration information.
Hence, with dirtboxes, the government can identify who is using a phone and their general location, making it a useful tool in locating criminals. As soon as a criminal suspect's phone is identified, the device drops connection with the other phones in the area.
This technology is so advanced that it can use that information to find an individual within about 10 feet, or even within the specific room of a building. Even cell phones with encryption, like the new iPhone, are not safe.
Indeed, this is the most sophisticated example of US government surveillance yet revealed to the public.
Similar devices are also used by the US military and intelligence officials in other countries, including in counterterrorism operations.
It all sounds like something out of a James Bond movie, but it's been happening within the US for nearly a decade.
The program, which is spearheaded by the US Marshals Service, began in 2007 and operates Cessna aircraft (small planes) from at least five metropolitan-area airports.
According to people familiar with the program, this means that the operation covers the majority of the US population.
Law enforcement is using this program to locate fugitives, drug dealers and other criminal suspects. In the process, however, it's also collecting and storing information about innocent Americans.
The Government Might Be Collecting Your Data And Violating Your Rights
Civil liberties organizations are concerned that this program violates the rights of innocent Americans.
As Timothy B. Lee notes for Vox:
It has long been known that law enforcement has the ability to spy on cell phones using fake towers. But in the past, the public only knew about ground-based systems that only operated over a limited area. The airborne devices reported by the [Wall Street] Journal can capture cell phone signals over a much wider area, increasing the potential for capturing the communications of innocent people.
Simply put, due to the way that the technology functions, it has the potential to be misused.
Furthermore, when one of these planes flies overhead, it does sometimes disrupt signals and interrupt calls that are in progress.
It is not known exactly how often the planes operate, but people familiar with the program claim they are "regular events." In essence, it's likely that the data of innocent citizens have been collected.
With that said, people familiar with the program also say that law enforcement officials do have to obtain court orders to search for phones. Yet, at the same time, the amount of data gathered from innocent people isn't exactly clear.
Likewise, earlier this year, a federal appeals court in New York declared that the over-collection and stockpiling of data is a violation of the Constitution. Correspondingly, one might argue that this program violates our rights.
In the past, the government has warehoused information incidentally collected on innocent people via such programs. They often hope that it will become useful in future investigations. It's disconcerting to think about living in a country where the government stores vast amounts of information on private citizens who have not committed any crimes. As history has shown, these types of states often abuse the rights of their citizens.
Accordingly, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is not happy about these revelations. Christopher Soghoian, chief technologist at the ACLU, described the program as "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."
This program is yet another example of the government's attempts to increase surveillance via technology, and it will undoubtedly exacerbate the debate surrounding the legality of such efforts.
Big Brother: America Is Becoming A Surveillance State
We live in a world dictated by technology. Concurrently, many of the threats we now face are relatively invisible. In other words, terrorists are not exactly in the habit of putting on a uniform and walking down the street.
Thus, it goes without saying that the government has had to adjust to these changes in our world. With new enemies comes new tactics.
Yet, it often feels that these efforts have gone too far. This was particularly true following the Edward Snowden leaks surrounding the National Security Agency (NSA) and its collection of the phone records of millions of Americans.
Moreover, it was also recently revealed that Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), commonly referred to as drones, are patrolling half of the US-Mexico border. It might not be long until they begin operating within the United States as well. Not to mention, the Obama administrations use of this technology abroad is hardly commendable either.
Similarly, as the prominent political thinker Noam Chomsky recently stated:
Governments are power systems. They are trying to sustain their power and domination over their populations and they will use what means are available to do this. By now the means are very sophisticated and extensive and we can expect them to increase. ... We’re developing technologies that will be used by our own governments and by commercial corporations and are already being used to maximize information for themselves for control and domination. That’s the way power systems work. Of course, they’ve always played the security card. But I think one should be very cautious about such claims.
Indeed, it appears that the United States is increasingly becoming a surveillance state. How much liberty must we sacrifice for the sake of security?
The public must step forward and demand more transparency surrounding the government's activities.