Secret Surveillance Programs All Around Us?
by Tom Olago
If you thought that perhaps only the company that owns your cell-phone brand or your mobile network/telecom operator has any potential access to personal data on your phone, think again. Surveillance technology is quite literally now soaring to dizzying heights and pushing current privacy boundaries to new levels. According to recent reports, the Justice Department is scooping up data from thousands of cellphones through fake communications towers deployed on airplanes that are flown regularly. Although this operational process is intended to hunt down criminal suspects and terrorists, it also reportedly captures information from the cellphones of a large number of innocent Americans in a “minimally invasive” way.
The operation, which is said to be within the ambit of the U.S. Marshals Service program, uses airplanes equipped with devices which mimic cell towers of large telecommunications firms, and trick cellphones into reporting their unique registration information. Cellphones are programmed to connect automatically to the strongest cell tower signal, and the mimicking devices are intended to produce that strongest signal.
According to other sources, information that can be collected also includes the cell phone holder’s general location. The devices can also jam signals and retrieve data from a target phone such as texts or photos. By taking the program airborne, the government can sift through a greater volume of information and with greater precision: technology can pinpoint location within about three meters, down to a specific room in a building.
These devices are also known as “dirtboxes” to law-enforcement officials. The name “dirtbox” is said to have come from the acronym of the company making the device, DRT (Digital Recovery Technology Inc.), now a subsidiary of Boeing.
The device data collection process resembles the NSA (National Security Agency) program in that it scoops up large volumes of data in order to find a single person or a handful of people. These developments were recently carried in the Denver Post after its original publication in the Wall Street Journal.
Issues identified and highlighted relating to this program include the following aspects extracted from the report:
• The device being used by the U.S. Marshals Service identifies itself as having the closest, strongest signal, even though it doesn’t, and forces all the phones that can detect its signal to send in their unique registration information. Even having encryption on one’s phone, such as Apple Co.’s iPhone 6 now includes, doesn’t prevent this process.
- The program cuts out phone companies as an intermediary in searching for suspects. Rather than asking a company for cell-tower information to help locate a suspect, which law enforcement has criticized as slow and inaccurate, the government can now get that information itself. People familiar with the program say they do get court orders to search for phones, but it isn’t clear if those orders describe the methods used because the orders are sealed.
- Also unknown are the steps taken to ensure data collected on innocent people isn’t kept for future examination by investigators. A federal appeals court ruled earlier this year that over-collection of data by investigators, and stockpiling of such data, was a violation of the Constitution.
- Within the Marshals Service, some have questioned the legality of such operations and the internal safeguards, saying that scooping up of large volumes of information, even for a short period, may not be properly understood by judges who approve requests for the government to locate a suspect’s phone.
- Some within the agency also question whether people scanning cell phone signals are doing enough to minimize intrusions into the phone system of other citizens, and if there are effective procedures in place to safeguard the handling of that data. It is unclear how closely the Justice Department oversees the program.
- The existence of the cell phone program could escalate tensions between Washington and technology companies, including the telecom firms whose devices are being redirected by the program. This is essentially because the program bypasses or overrides mobile network operators’ signals while misleading their cell phone users.
The U.S. Marshals Service program seems to be taking Stingray surveillance technology to the next level. In the words of the sanfrancisocbslocal.com or KPIX 5: “Stingray is a cell phone surveillance device so top secret, law enforcement agencies don’t even like to admit they have it. But KPIX 5 has confirmed Oakland, San Francisco and San Jose police are using Stingrays to track suspects. Now, Fremont Police and the Alameda County District Attorney’s office are applying for federal grants to get a new version of Stingray, called Hailstorm. The use of the devices is increasing, potentially at the expense of your privacy.You may think you are private when you’re talking on your cell phone, think again. From an undercover car or even strapped to a detective’s chest walking down the street, police are using a device called a Stingray to gather the serial numbers of surrounding phones. They’re chasing a target, but sweeping up your identity, activity and location as well.”
Stingray is said to monitor “Any communication that you initiate, a voice call, an SMS or an internet communication” according to Andrew Becherer, a security expert with ISEC partners. As could be expected, the Stingray has raised a number of serious issues related to its usage, much in the same way as its flying partner, the “dirtbox”. Some of the issues highlighted in relation to its usage include the following:
• Oakland police reportedly denying public access to related records, citing exemption from disclosure for security reasons. Similarly, according to San Jose police: “disclosure of technical information regarding the technology would enable law violators to escape detection.” • According to Nicole Ozer, technology and civil liberties Policy Director for the ACLU of Northern California, law enforcement is using the devices without a warrant, making the practice hard to track, and violating state privacy laws.
KPIX 5 also stated that the Alameda County’s DA’s office along with Oakland and Fremont police applied this year for a $500,000 federal grant to upgrade Stingray to something called Hailstorm, which could be even more powerful, and equally secretive.
As usual, the arguments being made in favor of surveillance (and at the expense of privacy) tend to major on the benefits which are suggested to be so important that they are easily worth sacrificing individual privacy rights for.
The Alameda County DA’s office reportedly sent KPIX 5 the following statement on the benefits: “The electronic surveillance technology we are seeking to acquire is an important tool to use for the safety and protection of the public. This technology can be used to prevent or respond to a terrorist attack. It can be used to track and apprehend serious and violent criminals and fugitives from justice. It can help to locate and recover missing persons and kidnapping victims. It may also be used in search and rescue operations to help locate missing or trapped victims of a natural disaster or terrorist attack. The use of this technology would speed the ability of rescue workers to locate injured victims quickly and to speed up the administration of life-saving medical intervention. The technology allows Law Enforcement and Public Safety Officers to use up-to-date technology to promote public safety and law enforcement well into the future. It is important to remember that this technology would not be used without court authorization.”
It is also interesting how these arguments are essentially the same used by those advocating for the use of human micro-chipping and the gamut of biometric and related RFID technologies. It would seem that eventually, these enhanced surveillance systems will be the perfect complement to the biometric control systems that will ultimately destroy the freedom of every man, woman, boy and girl alive on planet earth (Revelation 13:16, 17).