US using fake cell phone towers in airplanes to snoop on American citizens

US using fake cell phone towers in airplanes to snoop on American citizens.

The United States government snooping continues unhindered despite leaks (Snowden) and promises by President Obama in the Senate to reign in the NSA and its snooping programs.  This was proved today when Wall Street Journal reported that an as now unknown agency of the U.S. Justice Department is gathering data from thousands of cell phones, including both criminal suspects and innocent Americans, by using fake communications towers on airplanes.

Not a new program

As per the reports this is not a new program to snoop on Americans.  The program run by the U.S. Marshals Service began operations in 2007 and uses Cessna planes flying from at least five major airports and covering most of the U.S. population, the newspaper said, citing people familiar with the operations.

“The U.S. Marshals Service program, which became fully functional around 2007, operates Cessna aircraft from at least five metropolitan-area airports, with a flying range covering most of the U.S. population, according to people familiar with the program.

How it works

The agency used low flying Cessna airplanes which were mounted with cell phone towers which flew all around United States.  The towers above the Cessna tricked the mobile phones to automatically switch over to it for signals.  It works on the simple equation of mobiles catching the strongest signals to attach themselves to networks.  There are reports that the US agency used StingRay technology but it is unconfirmed as of now. StingRay is an IMSI-catcher (International Mobile Subscriber Identity) designed and commercialized by the Harris Corporation. The cellular-surveillance system costs as much as $400,000 in the basic configuration, and its price varies with add-ons ordered by the agency.

The IMSI-catcher is a surveillance solution used by military and intelligence agencies for telephone eavesdropping. It allows for intercepting mobile phone traffic and tracking movements of mobile phone users. Essentially, an IMSI catcher operates as a bogus mobile cell tower that sits between the target mobile phone and the service provider’s real towers. The IMSI catcher runs a Man In the Middle (MITM) attack that could not be detected by the users without using specific products that secure communication on mobile devices.

“The boxes used by the program allow planes to pose as the nearest cell phone tower, which prompts cell phones under surveillance to disclose their location and identity information, even if a legitimate tower is closer than the plane overhead. The dirtboxes also have the ability to interrupt calls, though officials have reportedly tried to mitigate the harmful consequences of that function.” reported the Business Insider.

The Agency from the Department of Justice apparently uses Cessna planes whcih are equipped with devices—some known as “dirtboxes” to law-enforcement officials because of the initials of the Boeing Co. unit that produces them—which mimic cell towers of large telecommunications firms and trick cellphones into reporting their unique registration information.

The technology allows law enforcement to steal data from tens of thousands of cellphones in a single flight, collecting their cell phone communications, locations and other important and confidential data.

Bigger than PRISM and TEMPORA

Though Department of Justice has neither confirmed nor denied the allegations of snooping on ordinary Americans, put in on Wall Street Journal, the complexity and scale of the program and the fact that is is in operation makes it perhaps a much bigger program than the erstwhile (sic) PRISM and TEMPORA programs of NSA and its allies.

The news has been floating around since morning and generating a lot of anti snooping opinion on the social media networks. If its is indeed true, the Department of Justice will have a lot of explanations to offer to the American people.


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