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American cell phone information under watch by government airplanes

No, you’re not being paranoid. The government has airplanes roaming the skies pulling data from your cell phone, according to a new report from the Wall Street Journal. Using devices mounted on aircraft flying overhead, the federal government is gathering data from the mobile phones of thousands of innocent Americans in “a high-tech hunt for criminal suspects,” according to a new report.

Earlier this year Historic City News began following the discovery that the Florida Department of Law Enforcement made it a practice to loan an immobile cell site simulator device, referred to as “stingray”, to local law enforcement agencies throughout the state.

On October 16, 2014 the Florida Supreme Court issued a decision, previously reported by Historic City News, requiring police in Florida to obtain a warrant in order to use cell phone location tracking technology to track a person’s location in real time.

The court said that the failure to obtain such a warrant constitutes a violation of the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable government searches.

The American Civil Liberties Union in Florida reported that police departments made efforts to hide the use of the cell phone tracking technology, based on internal police e-mail obtained under Florida’s Open Records laws.

Friday, the Wall Street Journal reported that an intrusive program, run by the Justice Department’s US Marshal Service since about 2007, now operates Cessna aircraft equipped with devices that mimic the cell phone towers of large telecommunications firms; tricking cell phones into reporting their unique registration information.

Citing “people familiar with the operations,” the newspaper reported that the program operates Cessna aircraft from at least five metropolitan-area airports, and that the flying range of the planes covers most of the USA’s population.

The technology used in the planes are two-foot-square mobile devices that can scoop the identifying information and general location from tens of thousands of cell phones in a single flight, the newspaper was told. The paper’s sources wouldn’t discuss the frequency or duration of the flights but said they occur on a regular basis.

According to the Wall Street Journal report, a Justice Department official would not confirm or deny the existence of the program, telling the newspaper that discussion of such matters would allow criminal suspects or foreign powers to determine U.S. surveillance capabilities. The official said that Justice Department agencies comply with federal law, including by seeking court approval.

The program is similar to a National Security Agency program that collects millions of Americans’ phone records, in that it scoops up large volumes of data in order to find a single person or a few people, The Journal reports. The U.S. government has justified the NSA phone-records collection program as a minimally invasive way to hunt terrorists.

Some of the devices on the Cessnas are known to law enforcement officials as “dirtboxes” because of the initials of the Boeing Co. subsidiary that produces them – Digital Receiver Technology Inc., according to the newspaper.

Cell phones are programmed to connect automatically to the strongest cell tower signal. The device used by the U.S. Marshals Service falsely identifies itself as having the closest, strongest signal, thus forcing all phones that can detect its signal to send in their unique registration information. Having encryption on a phone, such as that on Apple Inc.’s iPhone 6, doesn’t defeat the process, The Wall Street Journal says.

The technology is aimed at locating cell phones linked to people under investigation by the government, including fugitives and drug dealers, but it collects information on cellphones belonging to individuals who are not criminal suspects, people familiar with the program said. They said the device determines which phones belong to suspects and “lets go” of the non-suspect phone, the newspaper reports.

Photo credits: © 2014 Verizon Wireless

Michael Gold

St Augustine native, Michael Gold, is editor at Historic City News. He is an advocate for grassroots citizen journalism whose job is holding public figures accountable to the public. Founded on the Internet in March 2000, HCN has developed from a periodic newsletter, to an interactive platform, to a publication read by the area's most engaged citizens. Historic City News is focused on news originating from or having an impact on St Augustine and St Johns County. Contact by e-mail

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Categories: Courts & Law, Government Transparency, Must Read, National Security, News, Policy, Social Issues
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