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Aircraft Used for Mass Cellphone Surveillance


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The U.S. Department of Justice is collecting data from Americans' cellphones with surveillance planes that "mimic cellphone towers," according to a Wall Street Journal report.

The program is designed to catch criminals, but collects data from innocent people as well, sources familiar with the operation told the Journal.

The program is similar to the National Security Administration's dragnet approach to collecting information about ordinary citizens while tracking down criminals and terrorists.

A Justice Department official would not confirm or deny the existence of the program to the Journal: "The official said discussion of such matters would allow criminal suspects or foreign powers to determine U.S. surveillance capabilities. Justice Department agencies comply with federal law, including by seeking court approval, the official said."

The program has existed since 2007, and is operated by the U.S. Marshals Service's Technical Operations Group. It deploys Cessna aircraft from at least five airports that, combined, have a flying range that covers most of the U.S. population.

According to the Journal story, by Devlin Barrett, the planes carry a device called a "dirtbox" — the name is inspired by Digital Receiver Technology Inc., the Boeing subsidiary that makes the device — that acts like a cellphone communications tower.



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