Get Busy Livin’ or Get Busy Spyin’: The US Justice Dept Story

Just when you thought it was safe to use your cell phone without the government spying on you… What’s that? You haven’t thought that in years? Well, good on ya: you’re way ahead of the game.

Fake Cell Towers, Real Privacy Violations

How’s this for a completely crackpot, Bond villain-esque scheme that is nonetheless true: the United States Justice Department—the peeps who’re supposed to make sure your rights are protected—has been using fake communications towers to gather data from untold thousands of American citizens’ cellular telephones. These towers are ostensibly intended to assist in capturing actual criminal suspects.

Starting in 2007, the US Marshals Service program has been flying faux tower-equipped Cessnas out of at least five airports across America’s largest metropolitan areas. And, since this is the good ol’ US gubment we’re talking about here, “at least five airports” probably means “every airport in the country.” According to people with knowledge of the program, the flying range covers most of the US population—I’m gonna interpret that as “everyone.”

Aptly Named Devices

Law enforcement officials refer to the fake tower devices as “dirtboxes”; the irony of the dirtbag activities for which they’re using the devices is likely lost on them. By mimicking the signals of cell towers used by large telecom companies, the dirtboxes trick cell phones into reporting registration information and their users’ general locations. Given how relatively easy it is to harvest data from cell phones, you can bet your sweet bippy that they’re stealing a lot more information than that.

In a single flight, The Man can gather data from tens of thousands of tax paying American citizens who have done nothing wrong and should not be subject to State-sponsored invasions of privacy. Also, they maybe actually catch a criminal once in a while, so you’re welcome, ‘Merica.

If they're gonna spy on us using airplanes, they could at least quit farting around and use one of these bad boys.

If they’re gonna spy on us using airplanes, they could at least quit farting around and use one of these bad boys.

Justice Department officials have neither confirmed nor denied that such a program is in use, so you can be sure that it absolutely is. These same officials stated that discussing such matters could allow criminal suspects and “foreign powers” to determine the US government’s surveillance capabilities. Because, you know, criminals and those terrifying foreign powers will only go use what the government tells them to determine such things.

“But We’re Spying On You for Your Own Good”

The scheme is not terribly different from the NSA’s recent—and, surely, continuing—surveillance of Americans’ cell phone records and data files. In both instances, The Man has argued that the illegal and unwarranted collection of citizens’ data is a “minimally invasive” method of searching for terrorists.

This gives the government the perfect Catch-22 argument: There’s no way to prove that the program has actually helped catch any would-be criminals, because it’s done in secret and it’s clearly none of our business (though our taxes pay for such things and privacy is a basic human right), but/and there’s also no way to prove that it hasn’t prevented a terrorist attack.

The Justice Department maintains that all their agencies, including the ones that spy on their own innocent citizens, comply with federal law by seeking court approval for their stratagems. And the government wouldn’t lie to us, would it?

Photo credit: andycarvin / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

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