Justice Department Defends US Marshals' Airborne Cell Tower Spoofers; Refuses To Acknowledge Program Exists

from the may-or-may-not-have-repeatedly-violated-the-Fourth-Amendment dept

The Justice Department has been summoned to say a few words in defense of the US Marshals’ Cessna-mounted cell tower spoofers. And while it tried to leave a lot unsaid, it actually said quite a bit.

The Justice Department, without formally acknowledging the existence of the program, defended the legality of the operation by the U.S. Marshals Service, saying the agency doesn’t maintain a database of everyday Americans’ cellphones.

Because America’s criminal element is forever only moments away from permanently escaping the grasp of law enforcement, the DOJ has refused to confirm or deny the existence of technology everyone already knows exists — IMSI catchers and single-engine aircraft. The DOJ’s caginess is commendable. I’m sorry, I mean ridiculous. Here’s the same official further protecting and defending The Program That Dare Not Confirm Its Existence, using statements that indicate the program exposed by the Wall Street Journal not only exists, but functions pretty much as described.

A Justice Department official on Friday refused to confirm or deny the existence of such a program, because doing so would allow criminals to better evade law enforcement. But the official said it would be “utterly false’’ to conflate the law-enforcement program with the collection of bulk telephone records by the National Security Agency, a controversial program already being challenged in the courts and by some members of Congress.

No one’s conflating the feds’ airborne ‘Stingray’ with the NSA’s ongoing bulk phone records collections. All people have done is note that surveillance technology of this sort has the ability to collect (and store) millions of unrelated phone records in a very short period of time.

Furthermore, the unnamed official would like us to remember that this program [WHICH MAY NOT EXIST I DON’T EVEN KNOW] is completely legal [PROBABLY TWICE AS LEGAL AS THE NSA’S PHONE THING IF THIS IS HAPPENING WHICH IT MAY NOT BE].

The official didn’t address the issue of how much data, if any, is held on the dirtboxes by law-enforcement officials but said the agency doesn’t maintain any databases of general public cellphone information and said any activity is legal and “subject to court approval.’’

Other officials — also unnamed — have stepped up (sort of… in a spineless, anonymous way) to let critics know that the program that has never been officially acknowledged is pretty good at catching bad guys.

The program’s defenders say it has been an effective way of catching fugitives, including drug suspects and suspected killers…

Like the following notorious criminals:

…but they declined to provide specific examples in which it was used.

Probably because it may or may not exist, etc.

Officials familiar with the program noted that it was “minimally intrusive,” while simultaneously having an effective range that covers “most of the US population.” It may not be the NSA’s bulk records program, but it’s not exactly in any danger of being championed by civil liberties advocates.

Here are a few government officials who aren’t familiar with the implausibly denied program.

“We were not aware of this activity,’’ said Kim Hart, a spokeswoman for the FCC, which licenses and regulates cell-service providers.

Another IMSI catcher and another FCC denial. It appears that staying ahead of criminals also means withholding information (or directly lying to) regulatory agencies — which is probably not that big of a deal when you’ve spent years lying to judges.

And you can add legislators to the long list of those whose first exposure to the US Marshals’ “dirtboxes” came via the Wall Street Journal. Senators Edward Markey and Al Franken have both offered statements expressing their concerns about law enforcement’s willingness to sacrifice the public’s privacy for investigative efficiency.

The DOJ official who claimed this program is “subject to court approval” is being either blithely disingenuous or wholly dishonest. If this investigative technology had ever been approved by our nation’s courts, we would have heard of it long before now. This dearth of information indicates that the Marshals’ use of airborne IMSI catchers has been withheld the same way the use of its earthbound version has been over the past several years.

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Comments on “Justice Department Defends US Marshals' Airborne Cell Tower Spoofers; Refuses To Acknowledge Program Exists”

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36 Comments
Yes, I know I'm commenting anonymously says:

For the Techdirt Dictionary of politics-speak

“Subject to court approval” : the justice department will convince a judge that data gathered this way is admissable in court (in private, without adversary counsel) before entering it as evidence. It does not imply that any judge has any say over the implementation of the program. It also does not imply that the data cannot be entered through parallel construction.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Sick of this argument

The program’s defenders say it has been an effective way of catching fugitives, including drug suspects and suspected killers…

I am so sick of them trotting out this argument. Even if we accept the statement as being true, it’s irrelevant to the issue of whether or not innocent citizens should be subjected to this level of surveillance.

The only situation that I can think of that the argument would hold any serious weight at all is if we were in an actual existential crisis of some sort. Which we are not. And “drug dealers and suspected killers” wouldn’t present that level of threat in any case — pretty much, that sort of threat is only presented by war, violent insurrection, or a truly massive disaster.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Sick of this argument

“The only situation that I can think of that the argument would hold any serious weight at all is if we were in an actual existential crisis of some sort. Which we are not.”

Then maybe it’s about time for the U.S. government to manufacture an “existential crisis”. Again. Just like the “reason” for every overseas war that was ever fought. Surely the Propaganda Department can come up with something creative. Or even recycle old ones.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Sick of this argument

It’d have to be an actual existential problem — and even then, it simply makes the argument possible, it doesn’t mean it’s an automatic winner. OTOH, they got a major amount of mileage out of 9/11 by portraying it as an existential problem even though it clearly was nothing of the sort. So your point is well spoken.

tqk (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Sick of this argument

It’d have to be an actual existential problem —

How about we try to slip this one in as the du jour threat to civilization:

All people have done is note that surveillance technology of this sort has the ability to collect (and store) millions of unrelated phone records in a very short period of time.

And all these LEOs share with local law enforcement and traffic cops share with LEOs, and it’s Stasi on steroids.

Anonymous Coward says:

"Approved by a court"

If this investigative technology had ever been approved by our nation’s courts, we would have heard of it long before now.

Only if it was approved by an actual court in the sense meant by the Constitution and the founders. If it was approved by a kangaroo court like the FISA court, which is a court in name only since it never admits an adversarial lawyer, it might well be under permanent seal with all the attendant gag orders and non-denial denials.

Anonymous Coward says:

“The only situation that I can think of that the argument would hold any serious weight at all is if we were in an actual existential crisis of some sort. Which we are not.”

Existential crisis- I think you’ve hit the nail on the head there. That’s how this stuff is justified by many, they believe we ARE in an Existential crisis- in fact that the modern would is such that it will never not be in one again.

Stan (profile) says:

one or two points...

Time to apply Anti-Redaction lotion…”the agency doesn’t maintain a database of everyday Americans’ cellphones.” [Not quite yet, give us a few more days]

“…refused to confirm or deny the existence of such a program,…but has been an effective way of catching fugitives, including drug suspects and suspected killers…” If it may or may not exist, then it should really say “..has been or has not been an effective way…” After all, something that is non-existant CAN NOT be effective.

Anonymous Coward says:

If the government keeps up this trend of cell tower spoofing (especially when their gear has an ‘effective range that covers “most of the US population.”‘), they’re going to run afoul of Title II regulations. Something along the lines of “if you’re going to intercept US citizen’s communications, you must provide 4G service while you’re doing it.”

Trails (profile) says:

Prima facie

The program’s defenders say it has been an effective way of catching fugitives, including drug suspects and suspected killers

…which is why this investigative technique is so often referred to in criminal court cases.

Seriously, the above plus this:

…but they declined to provide specific examples in which it was used.

implies the feds have lied/withheld evidence in a court of law.

ECA (profile) says:

iV WARNED PEOPLE

Iv talked to my Friends about Wireless..

Be it your Keyboard, your cellphone, you EAR JACK, you mouse.. Any product that is WIRELESS..
1. MOST dont encode the signal. If they did, you PHONe would need the ENCODING also, this is NOT your KEY code to connect.
2. LISTENING is easy.. this is like a CB radio, or your CAR radio. You are not sending DATA, so you dont need a LINK code. You just LISTEN.. And anyone can hear it.
3. RANGE..ask HOME depot about this..They use WIRELESS to the front registers, and hackers have been OUTSIDE and picked up signals..IF they have a Good powered unit, they can reach over 1 mile, EASY..EVEn if your signal only reaches 30 feet.

The OLD phone service was cool, and took abit of effort to monitor a person Line. With Wireless, they only Need their OWN equipment, and dont even need a 3rd party to install it.

Anonymous Coward says:

The real reason the DOJ refuses to list cases where this invasive mass tracking technology has been deployed. Is due to the fact that if the DOJ discloses such cases, they would be forced to explain to the court why this evidence was never disclosed to the defense during discovery.

The reason this evidence was never disclosed, is due to parallel construction being used to commit perjury in court. If the DOJ lists any cases where airplane cell tower spoofers were used. They’d immediately open themselves up to perjury, destruction of evidence, and obstruction of justice charges.

The last thing the DOJ wants is to get caught breaking the law, while at the same time enforcing the very laws they break on other people out of a sense of self righteousness.

Anonymous Coward says:

I always notice there are almost never any back up facts to support that it is a successful program. When there are examples supplied it always comes out that nope, that program wasn’t the one that got them. It usually turns out to be gumshore that gets them, not programs.

Add to this the continual downgrading of confidence in the US government to do the right things for the right reasons and the total support for fascism. Even the most die hard citizens with belief in the government and it’s propaganda are an endangered species soon to go extinct.

Coyne Tibbets (profile) says:

If we're doing it we're not

So…

“If we were doing this, which we may or may not be doing, it would be legal. Because anything we do would be legal; if we were doing it, which we may or may not be doing.

“We can’t provide any data on this program that may or may not exist, because we do not admit any data exists or does not exist from this program that may exist or not.

“So obviously we can’t provide any examples, which may or may not exist of data that may or may not exist for a program that may or may not exist, but would be legal if it does exist.

“Which we do not admit or deny.”

GEMont (profile) says:

One by Land and Two by Sea and Three by Air - gotcha

What always amazes me about all of this surveillance industry double talk, is the blatantly obvious fact that none of this activity is designed to catch bad guys, or terrorists.

Common sense and history point out that whenever law enforcement bags the bad guys it brags so loud its embarrassing to behold, but there is never a peep about who has been convicted of crimes due to these myriad intrusive public spying programs.

I note that the only mention of the program’s (if it actually exists) efficacy in catching bad guys, is that it
has been an effective way of catching fugitives, including drug suspects and suspected killers…” – “suspects and suspected” being the key words here. No convictions to mention at all.

Maybe they don’t want to talk about it because its a C.E.L. Game (“catch’em, extort’em and let’em go”) kinda thing, like the program used in Vancouver, Canada, against Marijuana Grow Operations, to generate a continuous stream of extra non-budget funds for the cops, by making sure the growers are put back on the streets and allowed to immediately set up new grow ops.

Considering the new motto of the Most Transparent Administration In American History –

everyone (in the 99%) is considered to be guilty of some kind of a crime pending sufficient evidence to prove it so, or sufficient cash bribes to prove it false

– that statement could easily be translated to mean that they have simply located and identified where most Americans live, using this program.

The only real question that needs answering is what exactly ARE they doing all this surveillance for if is it not for catching crooks and terrorists, and personally, I think the answer is obvious.

The US public is now an expendable, self-replicating resource/feed-stock and good business sense demands that one know where one’s resources are and what they are doing at all times.

despiser says:

Modern Liberalism: In charge of everything, responsible for nothing.

I used to wonder how the Germans let the Nazis impose their will upon such an intelligent population in Germany. Then came 2007 and I realized that when you have a complicit army of BROWNSHIRTS like the Democrats did its quite easy.

If our founding fathers could have seen us today, they would have packed up, went back to England and apologized to the king.

GEMont (profile) says:

Re: Re:

“…army of BROWNSHIRTS like the Democrats did its quite easy.”

Sadly, you’re still allowing those very same people to control your thinking, by clinging to the notion that this whole mess is somehow partisan. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Its just business.

When the Fascists in Germany took over, they simply infiltrated the political arena under the guise of National Socialism – that is what NAZI means; National Socialist.

Fascists are about as far from National Socialists as is possible to get and still be in the same galaxy.

The German Public then, like the American Public now, had no idea they were fascists, because fascists NEVER operate under that title. They always use a familiar and popular facade to hide behind – the target country’s current political party titles – precisely so that people – like those in Germany – will continue to believe that the chaos occurring around them is partisan in nature and not the planned destabilization of the nations laws and ethics by fascist businessmen posing as politicians in all of the nation’s popular political parties.

I say “posing” as politicians, because fascists are 100% businessmen, and fascism is 100% a business model for taking over the reigns of a government and thus gaining control of the assets of a nation, for fun and profit.

As long as you and others continue to play their game and keep on shooting your wad at the “other party”, you will always miss the true target and the true enemy.

And as long as you keep on pointing at the wrong target, they will keep on laughing in your face and calling you fool, while they strip away everything that made you proud to be a German or in this case, an American.

You saw what they did to Germany, yet you still fail to understand that these are the same people – your own leaders of industry and commerce, swollen with war wealth – doing the same thing, the same way, for the same purpose.

Instead, you blame it all on your traditional political enemy.

Is it any wonder the fascists always use the same methodology to get the job done right? The public always falls for the ruse, and I do mean falls.

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