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Are US Spy Planes Eavesdropping On Your Phone Conversation?

Wednesday, January 28th, 2015

If the revelations made by the Wall Street Journal are to be believed, the U.S. authorities are flying planes fitted with fake cell towers over major American cities to eavesdrop on communications made through mobile devices. While this method of surveillance may seem more suited to a Hollywood movie or a science fiction novel, it reminds us yet again that average citizens remain vulnerable to significant surveillance and monitoring in their day-to-day lives.

As per the report published by WSJ, the Justice Department deploys small surveillance aircrafts over at least five American metropolitan areas on a regular basis. The surveillance is a part of the U.S. Marshals Service program and is capable of collecting cellphone data from tens of thousands of mobile users during each flight. The Cessna aircrafts participating in the program are equipped with devices known as “dirtboxes” which can not only mimic cellphone towers of mobile service providers but also intercept communications and trick devices into revealing their IMSI numbers (unique ID associated with each mobile device). The dirtboxes achieve this by offering strong signals which lure mobile devices into connecting to them and revealing confidential information.

Apart from routine information collection, the program can also be used to pinpoint the location of a specific mobile user. As per the report, the program uses the triangulation technology to locate users with an accuracy of up to 10 feet. While the aircrafts collect approximate location information from thousands of users during each flight, they can also be made to fly over an area repeatedly in order to confirm the location of a specific mobile user.

In addition to information collection, the program can also be used to jam signals and interrupt calls on a specific device. The latest advancements in the mobile surveillance technology also allows collection of text messages and photos but it is not known whether the Justice Department is collecting this kind of information from the users. Also, since the mobile devices are programmed to reveal information to cell towers automatically, having an encryption enabled phone cannot protect you from this type of surveillance.

The report further revealed that the surveillance program has been in operation since at least 2007. While the program was designed to locate criminals, fugitives, drug dealers and individuals who are under investigation, the planes also collect data from thousands of innocent Americans who happen to be present in the surveillance area at the time of the sortie. After the data is collected, the dirtbox identifies the phones belonging to the suspects and purges information collected from the other phones. Although the Justice Department did not acknowledge the existence of the program, it said in a statement that the Marshals Service does not retain information of the general public.

The revelations mark a quantum leap in the surveillance methods that are currently in use by the government. By deploying surveillance aircrafts in the sky, the police can bypass the slow responding phone companies and locate a person in real-time. For ordinary citizens, though, the program represents yet another way through which the government is spying on them.

January 28, 2015

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