Cell Phone Surveillance Reaches New Heights With U.S. Spy Planes

“Dirtbox” is the term used to describe fake cell tower devices attached to airplanes used by the U.S. Department of Justice to eavesdrop on cell phone information, according to a report by the Wall Street Journal published today. This might sound like something out of a conspiracy theory film, but individuals who are familiar with the covert U.S. Marshals service cell phone surveillance program told WSJ that these flights started grabbing cell phone data as early as 2007, leveraging Cessna planes to retrieve the data from countless cell phones on the ground below.

The WSJ report explains that the term “dirtbox” is derived from the acronym for Digital Receiver Technology Inc., or DRT, the company the allegedly manufactures these devices. DRT identifies itself as “a wholly-owned subsidiary of The Boeing Company” since DRT was purchased by the aircraft manufacturing company back in December 2008. Dirtboxes are a type of IMSI catcher, with the acronym referring to International Mobile Subscriber Identity. IMSI catchers pose as normal cell towers, so that your cell phone will attempt to use them. Once a connection is established, the IMSI catchers are able to pull information off your cell phone. These gadgets are able to eavesdrop on your phone calls, examine text messages, disrupt your cellular service, and even track the location of your cell phone. Ars Technica describes how law enforcement officials have used IMSI catcher models “Stingray” and “Gossamer” for years.

The WSJ report describes how the U.S. Marshals Service cellular eavesdropping program is able to collect cellular data en masse, by flying overhead with dirtboxes affixed to airplanes. Their sources claim that “non-suspects’ cell phones are ‘let go’ and the dirtbox focuses on gathering information from the target.”

This isn’t the first time IMSI-catchers have made the news due to suspicious usage. Back in July, ESD America CEO Les Goldsmith told Popular Science that he had discovered rogue base stations attempting to connect to his secured CryptoPhone. So far, no organization has stepped forward to claim ownership of these fake cell towers, which are sometimes known as “interceptors.” Goldsmith and ESD America customers collaborated to put together a map of fake cell tower activity, identifying about 17 different interceptors across the U.S.

The sources who have revealed the U.S. Department of Justice’s cellular eavesdropping program remains anonymous, and so far, they haven’t revealed their motivations for coming forward with this information.

The WSJ quotes one source as stating, “What is done on U.S. soil is completely legal. … Whether it should be done is a separate question.”