The US Justice Department has been accused of using technology on planes that can mimic cellular towers and fool smartphone users into believing they're connecting to a genuine phone network.
Dubbed 'dirtboxes', the spy tool will apparently collect unique information about connected devices to track certain suspects without requiring any help from networks. That's according to a report by the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), which claims the system grabs all information from mobile phones that it can in order to pinpoint one subject.
Once content is hauled, only information relevant to the subject is kept. The rest, presumably, is discarded, but that is unclear as, according to the report, it is described as being "let go".
The WSJ said that while it has heard that they are floating around in the air scooping up information like a swarm as part of efforts by the technical operations group of the US Marshals, the Justice Department would neither confirm nor deny it.
"Planes are equipped with devices, some known as ‘dirtboxes' to law enforcement officials because of the initials of the Boeing unit that produces them, which mimic cell towers of large telecoms firms and trick cellphones into reporting their unique registration information," reports the paper as it cites insiders close to the programme.
"The technology in the two-foot-square device enables investigators to scoop data from tens of thousands of cellphones in a single flight, collecting their identifying information and general location."
Having encryption on your handset makes you less susceptible to surveillance either, and all operating systems can be affected.
The report added that taking the search to the air offers a wide range for snooping, explaining that court orders might be involved, but their purpose may be unclear in the application.
The WSJ believes that the reason behind the technology is to cut out of middlemen, in other words, service providers, which may delay the authorities as they make their way to the data.
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