By Francisco Casillas |Staff Writer|
The Wall Street Journal states that the Justice Department uses these devices to track cellphones linked to criminal suspects but could also gather information from innocent Americans.
The program, launched by the U.S. Marshals service in 2007, uses devices known as “dirtboxes” that are mounted on small Cessna aircraft, which fly over most metropolitan areas in the U.S.
These devices, “mimic cell towers of large telecommunications firms, such as Verizon or AT&T, and trick cellphones into reporting their unique registration information,” according to BBC News.
“I don’t think they should be gathering information,” said student Nancy Ramos. “They should just scan it rather than look through the cellphones.”
In a single flight, the technology used in these devices allows it to collect data from tens of thousands of cellphones.
According to insiders, it collects a cellphone’s identifying information and general location.
From there, the technology goes as far as pinpointing criminal targets within crowded places by filtering it from a large pool of cellphones, including non-suspect phones.
The systems can then locate the suspect within three meters or within a specific room in a building.
Phones that are turned on, even when they are not in use, emit signals to these “towers,” that send registration information.
The insiders would not give insight about how often or how long these flights take, but they did confirm that the planes fly out on a regular basis.
Student Erika Samperio Solares approves, but said that the ethical issues involved in this program could make Americans more concerned about problems with the way they run.
“If accessing people’s information avoids future problems, then it’s a good idea. It shouldn’t be a problem. It’s only minimal. You can’t avoid the fact that things like this will eventually happen,” said Samperio Solares.
Justice Department officials didn’t confirm or deny the existence of the program, saying that discussing such a topic would give information to foreign countries about U.S. technology capabilities.
They did acknowledge that the agency complies with federal regulation, including seeking court approval, according to an interview with an official by The Wall Street Journal.
Christopher Soghoian, chief technologists at the American Civil Liberties Union, told The Wall Street Journal that the program is a “dragnet surveillance.”
“It is inexcusable and it’s likely — to the extent judges are authoring it — [that] they have no idea of the scale of it,” said Soghoian.
Earlier this year, a federal appeals court ruled that collecting records from millions of American’s phones and stockpiling it is a violation of the Constitution.
The Justice Department argues that this kind of technology is minimally invasive, in that once it locates the target, non-suspect phone data is removed from their database in order to search for terrorists.
“Organizations do tend to lie. If they keep boundaries up, that’s when it turns into a really detailed information gathering system,” said student Kyle Baxter. “The question is: how much does the Justice Department think minimum is?”