US spy planes monitoring own citizens’ phone activity

14 Nov 2014

A secret US government-run programme that mimics phone towers to zero in on peoples’ location – and even access their data – has been discovered.

The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reports of spy kits dubbed ‘Dirtboxes’ which, when attached to the underside of airplanes, can collect huge swathes of data from people on the ground.

The whole operation sounds a bit creepy, with Cessna aircraft flying over the US scooping up data “from tens of thousands of cellphones in a single flight, collecting their identifying information and general location”.

“The technology is aimed at locating cellphones linked to individuals under investigation by the government, including fugitives and drug dealers, but it collects information on cellphones belonging to people who aren’t criminal suspects,” according to The WSJ, whose sources said, “the device determines which phones belong to suspects and ‘lets go’ of the non-suspect phones”.

If someone the US wants to monitor uses a mobile phone from a particular network, the device would act similarly to ‘man in the middle’ scenarios seen in computer hacking, and trick the phone into thinking it was the service provider.

Who cares about public opinion?

Considering the uproar at the recent hacking of celebrities’ iCloud accounts, it’s clear where popular – or rather, unpopular – thought lies. Following the clear divide that has been created between tech companies and the US government after whistleblower Edward Snowden’s revelations, it will be interesting to see what the major telecommunications companies do in response to this.

Only yesterday we reported on a new survey that found most Americans are aware of government efforts to monitor their personal communications, with most feeling their privacy is being challenged along such core dimensions as the security of their personal information and their ability to retain confidentiality.

“Most say they want to do more to protect their privacy, but many believe it is not possible to be anonymous online,” reads the report

A federal appeals court in the US ruled earlier this year that over-collection and stockpiling of data was a violation of the Constitution.

“The program is more sophisticated than anything previously understood about government use of such technology,” reported The Wall Street Journal.

“Newer versions of the technology can be programmed to do more than suck in data: They can also jam signals and retrieve data from a target phone, such as texts or photos. It isn’t clear if this domestic program has ever used those features.”

From Snowden and his revelations about the US National Security Agency, to dragnet, to the UK’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), to political pressure on tech companies to comply more, to claims that encryption is wrong, and now this – what a time to be a consumer.

Online encryption image via Shutterstock

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic