Feds Put Fake Cell Towers On Planes, Spied On Tons Of Innocent Americans

from the because-surveillance-is-fun,-yo dept

The Wall Street Journal broke the news that the DOJ has been spying on tons of innocent Americans by putting fake mobile phone towers on airplanes and scooping up all sorts of data from people who thought they were connecting to regular mobile phone towers.

The U.S. Marshals Service program, which became fully functional around 2007, operates Cessna aircraft from at least five metropolitan-area airports, with a flying range covering most of the U.S. population, according to people familiar with the program.

Planes are equipped with devices?some known as ?dirtboxes? to law-enforcement officials because of the initials of the Boeing Co. unit that produces them?which mimic cell towers of large telecommunications firms and trick cellphones into reporting their unique registration information.

The technology in the two-foot-square device enables investigators to scoop data from tens of thousands of cellphones in a single flight, collecting their identifying information and general location, these people said.

We have, of course, reported for a while now on so-called Stingray devices, which mimic mobile phone towers on the ground (and have noted that Stingray is just one brand of a few such devices, known as IMSI catchers), but putting them on special planes and flying them around would allow law enforcement agencies to get a lot more information on a lot more people. Given that law enforcement efforts like this are supposed to be narrowly targeted towards those actually suspected of breaking the law, this seems like a massive 4th Amendment abuse, creating mass surveillance programs for law enforcement with little real oversight or control.

While it may not be entirely surprising that this is happening, it is yet another surveillance program being done with zero public transparency, zero public debate and zero public input. That’s a huge concern as we’ve seen time and time again how such programs get abused.

And, while the WSJ doesn’t come out and say it, it certainly sounds like it got this info from a concerned whistleblower inside the US Marshals Service:

Within the Marshals Service, some have questioned the legality of such operations and the internal safeguards, these people said. They say scooping up of large volumes of information, even for a short period, may not be properly understood by judges who approve requests for the government to locate a suspect?s phone.

Some within the agency also question whether people scanning cellphone signals are doing enough to minimize intrusions into the phone system of other citizens, and if there are effective procedures in place to safeguard the handling of that data.

As such programs keep getting disclosed, think of how many such other programs there are that we just don’t know about?

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Comments on “Feds Put Fake Cell Towers On Planes, Spied On Tons Of Innocent Americans”

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Anonymous Coward says:


They are already literally fondling your genitals before you board.

Wake up America… this is what you lose in your pursuit to be ‘protected’.

Lets draw a parallel… slaves were protected too… they were protected by their master against other masters their current master hated… but they damn sure were not protected from their master and his friends.

Just like in slavery we are all sold off to different masters for financial and political gain…

Who is your master today?

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Well...

“They are already literally fondling your genitals before you board.”

Yes, but as bad as that is, it’s still true that you can technically avoid it by avoiding getting on a commercial flight. But the data collection this article is describing affects everyone who uses cell phones, whether or not they ever set foot on an airplane. That makes it a much greater problem.

Raymond Smullyan says:

Re: Re: Well...

‘Nuf Said “Hey, if you don’t like it, move to another country.”

That’s a bullshit, unamerican thing to say. Our Great Country is predicated upon everyone having their say, and their vote. It sounds like you should move to Putinist Russia, my good fascist, or else let everyone have their say and their vote.

David says:


Given the tendency to treat immaterial goods the same as material, and given that we have sort of “stand your ground laws” where you can defend your property against thieves rather actively, does that mean that those laws allow me to shoot down planes where I have a reasonable suspicion that they are out to steal my data, namely acquire it without a legal title to it?

jilocasin says:

Develop some way to detect 'fake' cell towers

I think we have reached the point where we need an application that will detect _and_warn_ users when they are connecting to a _fake_ cell tower.

We have them for web sites (mostly, and just for SSL’d ones), we apparently need them for email (re: Cricket proactively _unsecuring_email), and I think we’ve reached the point where we need them for cell towers.

It was bad enough when johnny on the beat was driving around town with his own IMSI catcher, but apparently that wasn’t invasive enough. (or just way to much work for our constitution respecting government) Now we have flying, roaming, Gov. cell towers. What’s next, U.S. Cellular (..whoops, that’s an actual cell company) Freedom Cellular (.. nope already one of those too), well some innocuous sounding cell phone company run by the U.S. government directly.


TheResidentSkeptic says:

Re: Develop some way to detect 'fake' cell towers

If you read the articles on the equipment, there are ways of detecting it right from your phone.

my PD doesn’t know how to change the timezone on the stingray they have – so when my phone goes from correct time, in 4G mode, standard 2 bar signal to 4-bar, 2G, PST…

Many of the software toys they use can only support 2G; so your service will “downgrade” to that. If you study your phone in your usual spots, you know how many bars you should have there, and what mode you should be in.

And if the time zone suddenly goes way off and then comes back…

tqk (profile) says:

Re: Re: Develop some way to detect 'fake' cell towers

Yes, but by the time you’ve detected you’ve been boned, they’ve got your location. Smash the phone (or toss it into a passing dump truck) and run as fast as you can in another direction (trying to not look suspicious of course).

The above assumes the revolution has started and open warfare with the gov’t’s minions has been declared. Should be any day now.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Develop some way to detect 'fake' cell towers

“I think we have reached the point where we need an application that will detect and_warn users when they are connecting to a fake cell tower”

There are apps that can do this already. Fortunately, the location of fixed cell towers and their IDs is publicly available, and there are apps that let you compare the data about the towers you can see with the data of what towers officially exist. This lets you spot rogue towers. It’s not perfect, but in the absence of using a cryptophone, it’s reasonable.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: Develop some way to detect 'fake' cell towers

The ability to spot fake towers is a nice start, but there still needs to be some way to outright prohibit your phone from connecting to the fakes. Knowing that there’s a stingray or similar device on the network doesn’t help much if you can’t keep your phone/device from connecting to it.

David says:

Re: Huh?

A plane is not cost-effective for a single suspect. This is for mass-updates on the locations of multiple “single suspects”. No judge can reasonably sign up on those. And of course, this gets a lot more efficient when you don’t start tracking a single suspect only once it becomes a suspect: so you make sure that once you have a reason to search your data, the data is in good shape.

Now finding suspicious activity is pretty hard work. Data correlation can help a lot with that, so you let the computers dig through all that data (it’s not searching it, just correlating it) and propose suitable suspects.

Now if you accidentally discover some suspicious activity, like when it appears on your computer screen without any previous “search” by a human, you are allowed to act on that incidental knowledge by flagging the suspect and, since we are usually in an emergency situation, spy some more and bother about getting a warrant afterwards.

And lo-and-behold, before anybody objected, we did a full Eric Holder on the 4th Amendment.

Anonymous Coward says:

not quite zero

“it is yet another surveillance program being done with zero public transparency, zero public debate and zero public input.”

It might be zero public transparency, that’s true, but it seems the public debate and public input have been overwhelmingly negative. Which is no doubt the whole reason for the “zero public transparency” policy in the first place.

And let’s not forget that there was once a presidential candidate who back in 2008 who was elected on the (repeated) promise to get rid of these secret programs.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re:

That’s not as effective as you might hope, actually. Using a VPN only means that the contents of your communications can’t be tapped. It does nothing for phone tracking. Using multiple SIMs is of minimal help as well — that only increases the effort required to track you, but in this age of Big Data, that increase doesn’t really mean much.

If you’re truly paranoid, the only real option is to use burners, and use each burner only one time before ditching it.

Anonymous Coward says:

it’s about time we woke up to the fact that there are a million and one things going on in the country that benefit law enforcement, security forces and individual, giant corporations only! there isn’t a damn thing happening that is of benefit to the people at all!! and every day is getting worse with more restrictions on us, more ways of screwing us, more ways of extracting money, more ways of persecuting us so as to be able to penalise us.

GEMont (profile) says:

Re: Re:

You know, you sound exactly the way I thought a resource would sound once it realized it was simple property.

But hey, its not all bad.

You now bear a personal price tag. That’s something you never had before hey!

The price tag is the total value of your work life at the specialization in which you excel, minus your anti-establishment sentiments and estimated danger-cost to the state.

Beware that your minus does not exceed your plus, lest the powers-that-be redirect your vehicle via GPS, into a bridge abutment at 80 MPH. 🙂

Ah… the future sounds so sweet, for the 1%.

Anonymous Coward says:

Who's we, sucker?

yet another surveillance program being done with zero public transparency, zero public debate and zero public input

You act like this is a government of the people, by the people and for the people. If it was, the people would have some say in the matter. Oh wait…

On another note, 2 pts to the person who knows where the quote in the subject line comes from.

BlueLightMemory says:

Just don't get to comfy using cell phones

Cell phones are really nothing but 24/7 tracking devices.

This article only confirms that you really don’t want to be carrying a cell phone with you at all times.

When the time comes where we will be fighting armed against the tyrants in the Justice Department, etc, only a fool will be carrying a cell phone with them.

Joy Beum says:

Alternative spying take

I would like to say ‘they can spy on my phone if they want as I have nothing to hide’. However, with the current administration being run by a bunch of muslim terrorists, they are not at all interested in protecting me or any other American. They are only interested in protecting the terrorists. Thus, the spying is NOT for national security (at least not the security of the United States of America).

GEMont (profile) says:

Re: Alternative spying take

Muslim Terrorists!!!
Da Boogeymenz!!!

Boy did your ever swallow the official hook, line and sinker.

Yeah, there are some real live Muslim Terrorists in the MTAIAH.

Those real Muslim Terrorists do work for the Most Transparent Administration In American History indeed, but the administration itself is 100% purest Amurikin!!

And those real Muslim Terrorists on the federal payroll were born and raised in America, and are members of the crew of remote pilots in the drone strike force… in other words, they’re American Terrorists!!

I’ll bet you didn’t even know that most of the members of ISIL were white guys from the Five Eyes Nations – that’s why they need the masks.

Hell, both Canada and Britain have publicly denounced the citizens who have quietly left their respective countries to join ISIL, and both countries have threatened to revoke their citizenship, but haven’t yet, as far as I can tell.

That’s because its just a cover story to smoke-screen the deployment of the special forces personnel drawn from all of the Five Eyes nations that make up the western-trained and funded Terrorist Army known as ISIS/ISIL.

Its a con, just as the War on Terror and The War on Drugs and The War on Poverty are all con-jobs – just slick methods of siphoning off more and more tax-payer’s money for corporate and private interests, legally.

You may think you have nothing to hide, but that matters little when the criminals occupying the halls of power need a scapegoat or fall-guy and can turn a selection of your innocent daily activities – recorded in extreme detail via 16-25 separate surveillance programs – into a believable scenario for criminal intent or state subversion, at will.

In case all of that went right over your head, it Aint Muslims that you should be worrying about. Its your own USG that’s running the Global Terror Show, and the only God they worship, is called Mammon and Mammon knows no national boundaries and recognises no God beyond itself.


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