The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for information about the airborne "cell site simulators" program within the U.S. Marshals Service (USMS). You've probably never heard of "cell site simulators." Basically, they are fake cell phone towers:
"Cell site simulators, also called IMSI catchers, impersonate a wireless service provider’s cell tower, prompting cell phones and other wireless devices to communicate with them instead of the nearest tower. In doing do so, the simulators can learn all sorts of information that facilitates accurate location tracking..."
So, the technology tricks your mobile phone into communicating with a simulator while thinking it is a valid cell tower operated by your phone/Internet service provider. When your mobile device pings a cell tower, it sends out information identifying your device (hence, identifying you), so you can send/receive phone calls and text messages.
Reportedly, the USMS uses Cessna airplanes outfitted with cell site simulator equipment to perform the tracking and data collection. The data collected includes mobile device serial numbers, GPS location information, direction of movement, date/time stamp, and related sensitive data.
"The government apparently calls cell site simulators deployed on airplanes “DRT boxes” or “dirtboxes”, after their manufacturer, Digital Receiver Technology, Inc. (DRT). (Other cell site simulator models, produced by Harris Corporation, are the “Stingray," “Triggerfish,” “Kingfish,” and “Hailstorm”)..."
The U.S. Marshals Service (USMS), a unit within the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), celebrated its 225th anniversary on September 24, 2014. The unit's duties include protecting the federal courts, apprehending federal fugitives, managing and selling assets seized from criminals performing illegal activities, housing and transporting federal prisoners, and operating the Witness Security Program.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is studying how criminals illegally use the fake cell tower equipment to spy on citizens. IMSI Catchers can be bought for as little as $1,800, and operated by individuals with little technical expertise. One company developed CryptoPhone to help businesses discover the location of fake cell towers.
The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) filed a FOIA request in February 2012 about fake cell tower usage by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). At the EPIC site, you can browse several documents released by the FBI.
While the dirtboxes are supposedly used only for criminal investigations, the ACLU filed the FOIA request because:
"The problem is that, during each flight, a dirtbox is able to collect data from tens of thousands of cell phones. And, inexplicably, that is pretty much all we know about this program."
Citizens need to know how the data collected, how long it is stored, how the USMS and DOJ protect the data collected, the legal basis and guidance for the data collection, what other agencies the data collected is shared with, the success rate of prosecution based only upon simulators, and how the data collection targets only suspected criminals. It'd be a huge waste of taxpayers' money if the data collection did not result in any prosecutions or convictions.
If there is no targeting, then the cell site simulators collect information about everyone, including youth and thousands of innocent, law-abiding citizens. The data collection would be greater and broader, since aircraft move unlike stationary cell site simulators. If the data collection is not targeted, then it seems to be a huge privacy violation.
Download the ACLU's FOIA request. What are your opinions of cell site simulators? Are you concerned that local police departments and/or foreign governments also use the spy technology?