An American spying program reportedly run by the U.S. Marshals Service is gathering data from tens of thousands of cell phones in USA. Two- square- foot devices also termed as dirt- boxes which mimic cell towers of large telecommunications firms, trick cell phones into reporting their unique registration information.

The Wall Street Journal reports that the name “dirtbox’’ came from the acronym of the company making the device, DRT, for Digital Receiver Technology Inc., people said. DRT is now a subsidiary of Boeing. A Boeing spokeswoman declined to comment.

According to people aware of the U.S. Marshals Service program which started in 2007, it operates Cessna aircrafts from at least five metropolitan airports. Their flying range roughly covers the entire U.S. population. These devices are able to pick up basic identity information, general location from several cell-phone devices.

Primarily designed to monitor criminal activities, planes equipped with the fake cell phone- tower devices can scan thousands of cell phones looking for a suspect. According to Justice Department officials the program can automatically ‘let go’ of non suspect cell phones and concentrate on gathering information from the target. The plane moves to another location to detect signal strength and location and use the information to narrow down the suspect’s location to three metres. The device also bypasses phones with encryptions, such as the one in iPhone 6.

The program can reportedly interrupt phone calls; however authorities say that the software was tweaked such that it doesn’t interrupt any 911 calls.

They operate in the same way as Stingray, a more commonly known mobile phone surveillance tool, security expert Prof Alan Woodward told the BBC. “The governments have access to Stingray which is available off the shelf to spy on mobile phones but governments aren’t the only ones. For £2,000 you can build your own,” he said.

The program forgoes any phone companies which allows them to locate and monitor the suspects directly. The program is reportedly similar to the National Security Agency’s surveillance program which collected large amounts of data including non suspect phone records in attempts of finding probable suspects.

The steps taken to ensure that the data collected from non suspect cell phones won’t be used to pursue action or investigation in the future also remains elusive. A federal appeals court ruled earlier this year that over- collection and stockpiling of such data was a violation of the Constitution.

Christopher Soghoian, Chief technologist at the American Civil Liberties Union, called it “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.”

In comparision to the limited range of Stingray devices, Mr. Soghoian said: “Maybe it’s worth violating privacy of hundreds of people to catch a suspect, but is it worth thousands or tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of peoples’ privacy?”

The Justice department remains tight-lipped about the program and claim that all Justice Department agencies comply with federal law which includes seeking court approval. JD official said that discussion of such matters can compromise U.S. surveillance capabilities.

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(Image Credit: Kangrex)

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