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U.S. government accused of spying on citizens with fake towers to collect phone data

A new report suggests that a U.S. Marshals Service spy program operating under the Justice Department is collecting thousands of cellphone identification numbers from Americans by employing fake communication towers. The program has been operational since 2007 and the towers are mounted on Cessna airplanes operating out of at least five metropolitan-area airports. These fake towers would trick cell phones on the ground into sending their identification numbers, which are then collected by the government for use in criminal cases.

According to the WSJ, this is how the program works:

Planes 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.

And this is how the dirtboxes work in obtaining your phone's identifying information:

Cellphones are programmed to connect automatically to the strongest cell tower signal. 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.

According to the Journal, the program is targeted at "individuals under investigation" by the government, but it does collect information from innocent bystanders who aren't a suspect. After analysis of the collected data, it is reported that information from suspects are kept while non-suspect phone data is not.

Through the program, the government no longer needs to rely on phone companies to provide them with cell tower information and they can obtain this data themselves. The danger for consumers is that this technology could interfere with phone calls, though it's reported that special software helps to minimize interruptions with emergency calls to 911.

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.

Do you think the latest tactics of the Justice Department is more over-reaching than NSA data collection in the past where massive amounts of cell phone records were collected?

Source: WSJ

Chuong Nguyen
Chuong Nguyen

Chuong's passion for gadgets began with the humble PDA. Since then, he has covered a range of consumer and enterprise devices, raning from smartphones to tablets, laptops to desktops and everything in between for publications like Pocketnow, Digital Trends, Wareable, Paste Magazine, and TechRadar in the past before joining the awesome team at Windows Central. Based in the San Francisco Bay Area, when not working, he likes exploring the diverse and eclectic food scene, taking short jaunts to wine country, soaking in the sun along California's coast, consuming news, and finding new hiking trails. For news tips or to connect, please message him on the Signal messaging app at +1 (424) 666-7438. 

179 Comments
  • "God bless America"
  • Hahaha
  • Wolf Pac! http://www.wolf-pac.com/ You can thank me later when money has been removed from your politics.
  • Well said
  • Heil Bush and Obama.
  • Isn't this some sort in man in the middle attack? You'd think there would be some unique identifier between the phone and the tower specific to the carrier that could prevent this.
  • Because if he doesn't, America will know.
  • Is that GEJ's? Lol.
  • Lmao WTF
  • This nation isnt free its all bullshit!
  • Europe seems more liberated.
  • Auschwitz prisoners had less scrutiny
  • LOL! What?
  • they have surveillance cameras everywhere and regulate peoples avtivities way more. but leep believing the grass is greener on the other side.
  • Not that much compared to the US of A
  • yeah, as an European all I can say is that's BS.   I've been to America loads and loads of times, and trust me, you live in far more of a police/surveillance state than I nor my neighbours.
  • +930
  • Are you guys insane...my god.
  • There are different definitions of "free".
  • Several countries are more "free" than us, New Zealand just to name one.
  • Land of the free, home of the enslaved....
  • Land of the faux-free, home of cowards.
  • As a Canadian the fact that they can catch a criminal that fast is amazing! And c'mon if they see your phone so what? Your not a criminal are you?
  • Apathy is the glove into which evil slips its hand.
    Civil liberties are hard won - so why give them up so cheaply?!
  • +1
  • +1520
  • Well said
  • +925
  • which civil liberty did yoū lose with this? they aren't listening to your phone call. the worst that happens is that you get the inconvenience of a dropped phone call. there are government prigrams we dhould worry about, but this isn't one of them.
  • None.......yet. Its the principal, if we let them get away with this little thing now what to say they're not going to try something bigger later.
  • +1 completely agree
  • people with your opinion are the reason why they can freely spy on everyone in the world. .. why mocking about.. got nothing to hide.. right..
  • That's not the point. The point is that the constitution secures the right to privacy and the constitution is being violated all the time. What other laws would we allow violated in the name of security? Already other rights like peaceful assembly are limited.
  • What piracy is being violated here? Your location on public roads? Or your connection to a network that isn't your own? Nothing is forcing you to utilize a cell phone.
  • Thank you.
  • So we are gonna build a society in which it's impossible to live unless you give up your rights? They check your phone, so what, don't use a phone; they check your purchase history, so what, don't buy food. Yeah great idea buddy. You're missing the bigger picture here. There are even laws that Obama has pushed where they can incarcerate anyone indefinitely, without charge. Don't say it only applies to terrorists, because they don't have to charge you, tell anyone they have you, and you don't have the right to a trial. It's borderline fascism.
  • I'm trying to think of how that isn't yet fascism... but I can't.
  • Yeah, it's some disturbing shit, and it's happening in a major world power. History always repeats.
  • Indeed my friend. We are no different from anyone else really. We do everything in the guise of spreading democracy or fighting terrorism. Pretty freaky scary if you think about it... Labeling someone a "terrorist" and giving no trial or pressing no charges. Land of the free indeed.
  • Same here
  • Not Obama but Bush.
  • All presidents since hoover really
  • Public roads are paid for with our money. Governments own nothing despite what they say. My service with my carrier should be between me and my carrier. If they give out info willingly to the government, that is one thing so long as the carrier makes it public knowledge that they may do so. This however, is not only without carriers having any control over it, but also imitates the carrier towers. It is stolen info as far as I am concerned whether they store it or not(prove to me that they aren't storing it.). Lastly, I am not paying taxes to help the government violate our rights and create a system where you can become guilty until proven innocent nor did I ever give them permission to.
  • Agree @electric jack
  • Good point Electric.
  • & what airports have poison WiFi ap's?
  • Face it people. Big brother is watching.
  • Innocent until proven guilty. Anything you say, text or email will be held against you in an undisclosed location
  • Very good
  • But why U.S. Marshalls? That's not their specialty ... FBI or NSA would've been more believable ... It doesn't make sense.
  • I agree.
  • Nor does it make sense that the Department of Education has SWAT vehicles, military armor and fully automatic fucking weapons, but that's where we are today. Thanks, George W. Bush and Barack Obama!
  • I think this is for people with arrest warrants
  • Catching fugitives is their business and everyone has a cell. This is a natural evolution for law enforcement to take. It makes perfect sense they do this.
  • The US has been militarizing itself for a long time now. It is a progression that has a mask of "safety and convenience" but there isn't much to do about it. 
  • Are warrants required for anything anymore? What next, take the right to remain slient out of the Bill of Rights? How about take away free speech? I know, search and seizure without probable cause, enact that! Don't forget to take away our right to bear arms!
  • they aren't tapping the calls. so a warrant isn't required. this will actually make you drop your call. this is used to locate a criminal they are tracking. it's no different than a police car scanning license plate. there is no right to privacy when you are in a public place. the constitution only protect your pricacy in your home and places where there can be a reasonable expectaion of pricacy.
  • So you think when these planes fly over they know if you are in your home or place of business, and won't pick up your phones information? Get a grip.
  • Nothing glamorous about the criminal life, if you're good you ain't gotta worry..."good" is subjective, all it means is even if you gotta run they can't get you. Otherwise they will get you any way they can, survival of the fittest or common sense will prevail, take your pick. You are always free to choose your actions, the consequences will always vary...
  • HOLY SHIT!! What's next? For people using escort services, now it's easy to track them and get them right in the act. Noooooo!!! Land of the free? You serious!?
  • 'Murica Freedom! :D
  • Old news and what is this junk doing here? This site is getting worse by the day..
  • Old does not mean less relevant...
  • How is it junk? You do realize this site is about Windows products, which includes cell phones.
  • You seem android.
  • 1. When is someone a suspect?
    2. How do they identify the suspects IMEI and separate it from the other 500'000 they snatch on such a flight? What else are they looking at to make that differentiation?
    3. What do they use this number for?
    4. How long is this information stored, for both suspects and non-suspects?
    5. Do they need a warrant?
    6. The U.S. gov. spying on U.S. citizens is against the spirit of the U.S. constitution. With enough legal twisting and turning anything can be reinterpreted so as to make such actions legal, which is what an army of lawyers has done for the NSA. How was the constitution twisted to make this acceptable?
  • While I'm the biggest defender of the constitution, it was written 250 years ago. The world has changed drastically since. No one seems to understand this.
  • Human beings have not changed. Rights are still rights. Freedom is still freedom. And this kind of crap abuses both rights AND freedom. America is a shell of its former self. What a disgrace.
  • I think a lot of people understand this.  However, the constitution really only spells out basic human rights (which don't really change over time) and the basic framework of government.  The constitution is still the law unless it is amended with an updated law. In this case I believe the Patriot Act of 2001 and a similar act passed in 2007 are what the government is using to justify it's spying programs.  Of course that ignores the fact that an Act can't overrule the constitution (that requires an amendment).
  • I don't see how rights are being violated from this article. You waive your rights after you commit a crime, only right you have at that point is the right to a trial by your peers. They are finding you on public roads. The same gentlemen that wrote the constitution had soldiers hide in trees to spy on their enemy. This is no different. They aren't listening to your private conversations, nor are they collecting any private information.
  • If you haven't been convicted, you haven't committed a crime. Suspecting someone of a crime is not grounds for violating their constitutional rights.
  • I believe the marshal service generally tracks down people who are already criminals or skipped bail.
  • Funny how you mention public roads, so they wouldn't do this to me if I were in the middle of my property?
  • Then amend the constitution, so it actually reflects the rights citizens have! Allowing the gov. to violate the spirit in which it was written (spying on your own law abiding citizens is constitutionally illegal) by reinterpreting it left and right shouldn't be something a gov. is allowed to do. That is what's happening. If such twisting of constitutional texts is legal, then what value does it really have? Might as well flush it down the toilet, along with all the other rights it proclaims to grant. If you really are the biggest defender of the constitution, but you don't want to defend its substance in its current form, then you should at least defend its integrity!
  • But the core ideas of life have not changed. Neighbor creeps at you through your window, or government looks through your phone. It was meant to keep your rights. The idea of it will never change with technology.
  • Doesn't sound like Alex really is a defender of the Constitution because you're willing to go against it with ease. And the world hasn't changed much in the last 50 years, the same BS that happened then, CIA/NSA spying on citizens and fighting "Terrorists" are happening now. So your excuse about it being a different world is invalid as it's still very much the same.
  • Thanks Obama!
  • Sarcasm right? As all he did was continue BS Acts that were passed before he was in office. Still sucks though.
  • ...is anyone surprised? The PATRIOT act lets them do whatever they want..
  • Illuminati inside jobs
  • Man, why you always write US only articles in this site!?!? /s
  • Thank you for your interest in our product.  The "Dirtbox" will be released in your country in the near future.  ;)
  • U.S. based website perhaps....
  • in reality i dont care who spy my phone/computer... only wory if my wife spy me when i am with another woman :)
  • Not the best place to post that.
  • So, you don't think that an employee in these security agencies could get your compromising data and blackmail you? (for example)
  • Your wife told me yesterday that she doesn't care about your fat secretary.
  • Lol
  • hehehe LOL nice comment but i dont have secretary, only "use" only married womens ;) and dont care about weight if womens is hot... 
  • That seems like an awfully expensive way to go about it.
  • Yall keep putting the GOP in congress. SMH.
  • Yep because that's what's to blame here. How about embracing a culture of crime? That holds zero blame, huh?
  • Thank you.
  • Because a very Few citizens are criminals, we all have to pay for it?
  • What information do they actually get? I see "unique registration information" Is that all? Or does it also mean access to my nudes? If it doesn't access my nudes. I don't really care as much.
  • A) Is anybody genuinely surprised? B) can you honestly blame them? The world has evolved and the tactics used to keep it safe need to as well. They've used non technological methods for decades, do you blame them for moving to a more modern approach? None of you would complain if your daughter was kidnapped and this were used to find her.
  • If this is actually helping to solve crime then I don't care. Now if the results are negligible then they need to find another way.
  • True and agreed. It's just that it feels weird to know that you're potentially being spied on.
  • Except its not...but nice try...it was proven that the NSA would not provide access to the FBI to actually help folks...
  • Exactly.
  • ​No I am not surprised and your silly arguments have been used over and over to justify abuses... ​"History repeats itself" Giovambattista Vico....
  • You mean the Obama administration is spying on us.
  • No.  He means the U.S. government.  It takes more than the president to make this stuff happen.  Congress had a hand in it by providing the initial authorization and providing the budget dollars for it.  Also, most of this NSA/spying stuff started long before Obama was elected.  Should Obama be doing more to stop it?  Yes, he should.  However, blaming complex issues with a long history on whoever the current sitting president happens to be is an oversimplification and it does nothing to help solve the problem.
  • +1
  • Haven't heard of executive orders, eh?
  • Not only have I heard of executive orders, I actually know what they are. Did you know that executive orders are basically just the normal process that the President uses to manage aspects of the government that have already been assigned to the President to manage by either Congress or the Constitution?  From wiki... "United States Presidents issue executive orders to help officers and agencies of the executive branch manage the operations within the federal government itself. Executive orders have the full force of law when they take authority from a power granted directly to the Executive (i.e. the President) by the Constitution, or are made in pursuance of certain Acts of Congress that explicitly delegate to the President some degree of discretionary power" Also, you might be interested in knowing that Obama has issued fewer executive orders per year than any president in the past 100+ years.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Executive_order This probably isn't what you thought an executive order was, huh?  I bet you were told it was some evil way of circumventing the constitution and the legilative process, when it is actually just a way of managing the things that Congress or the Constitution have previously given the President legal control over.  You might want to ask yourself why you are getting your information from sources that are at best incorrect and more likely intentionally trying to persuade you with exagerations and lies.
  • I initially wanted to be outraged, but then I recalled the bs about Google caching WiFi SSIDs for navigation assistance, and was thinking "so what" because it's info the routers were broadcasting by design. So maybe restraint is good here also. I suppose the question here is "would Facebook face legal challenge if they now do the same thing for commercial gain?"
    In truth, I don't think this violates my privacy *if* they are not saving the bulk data as claimed. Sounds very much like hunting for someone by looking for their license plate, and it's pretty smart.
  • It does say that non-suspects are let go
  • I wonder if this technology could be used to assist in finding people who go lost in a place with no signal, assuming they have battery left in their phone.
  • It could easily be used for that! Although I don't think the gov. Would want to do something as useful as that....
  • America f yeah, coming here to save the mf'n day yeah!
  • Do they use windows phone to do this? Why this article here?
  • People will complain for a week and forget all about it. They forgot about NSA program, they will forget about this too.
  • For those who say they got nothing to hide: If they can download your data, they can also upload anything they want. This is a big deal.
  • This.....
  • ...is scary.
  • And charging my data plan....oohhh....hell nooo!!
  • The problem is how do we know they aren't viewing everyone's information? Because they say they aren't . It doesn't matter if your a criminal or not,shit like this just makes it easier for the govt to eventually take all our rights away. Ok maybe that's a little extreme but this country is heading towards becoming a fascist state.
  • Can't the phone user only use cell towers within their network that are registered and not spoofed. Maybe a cert of some type, our key or something?
  • There will be the day where I send a picture of me buttnaked to all government agencies. They can never unsee that and maybe that will make spying on people a bit less fun :)
  • First, why is Windows Central reporting on a story that has nothing to do with Windows, Windows Phone, Microsoft or anything pertinent to this site’s mission? Just because the WSJ story is about cell phones does not qualify it for this site. By that right, everything related to cell phones (Android, Apple, Blackberry, etc.) should be reported on this site. I find this posting by Windows Central staff to be inappropriate. Second, like most reporting these days, only part of the story was reported. The US Marshal Service, part of the Justice Department, is tasked with tracking down fugitives. If the US Marshal Service is tracking Mr. Scumbag and knows he is using phone number 123-456-7890, then the technology seems to fit the bill. Identify that Mr. Scumback is at the Motel 6 out on Highway 2 and send someone out to get him. Perhaps, just perhaps, the technology is being used as described in the article. “If a suspect’s cellphone is identified, the technology can pinpoint its location within about three meters. Phones that are non-suspect are “let go.”” Mr. Scumbag goes to jail and non-suspect data is not stored. Perhaps nothing nefarious is being done by the US Marshal Service. They are just doing their job. The WSJ does not imply, hint or suggest that they found anything illegal.  
  • While I agree with you on some points, the " data is not stored" argument already was bogus when the NSA used it.
  • Just because one person (or organizaton) commits a crime, it doesn't mean everyone commits a crime. That being said, we need checks and balances. These types of program do need be exposed, reviewed, and verified that they are used appropriately and not abused. I am all for law enforcement using tools in the right way to capture criminals.
  • A couple of technical aspects in the report don't hold. E.g."Cellphones are programmed to connect automatically to the strongest cell tower signal. " For GSM/UMTS/LTE systems this is a false statement. Also if it's the first cell tower the phone sees, it should fail NW authentication if USIM I used (US GSM operators use USIM). So the phone will reject these towers. Unless in fact they are operator's sites being accessed by the security agency
  • How many people here voted last Tuesday? I did. If you didn't and are.eligible to vote then STFU about your rights.
  • I voted. Still, I believe that if voting actually made any difference it would have been outlawed years ago.
  • Mouseland explains it veru well.
  • Just wait till they make laws against free speech....then this will be used to catch you....jus because your not a "criminal" now.....one day soon they will make you one
  • This is similar to the system that lets law enforcement get HBO for free.
  • This has been happening for years
  • I want one.
  • I think what's really disturbing is that this is very similar to what the Geheime Staats Polizei (Secret State Police, or simply Gestapo) had done in Nazi Germany in 1936. I've been studying Nazi Germany and, more broadly, WW II for a very long time. If you look back in history, you'll find that one part or another has repeated itself. Sometimes in numerous cases with the only differing factor being the motive. I'm not gonna bore anyone with the details, but I will point you to a source with the following quote: "Indeed, the Gestapo became a law unto itself. It was entirely possible for someone to be arrested, interrogated and sent to a concentration camp for incarceration or summary execution, without any outside legal procedure." Source: http://www.historyplace.com/worldwar2/triumph/tr-gestapo.htm It basically meant that you could be arrested and sent to prison indefinitely for any reason that was deemed viable to whomever arrested you. If this information that is indiscriminately being collected is in fact being saved, one might very easily see where this might lead. Hitler didn't take away the rights of his people all at once. It was a gradual process. Much like putting a frog in a pot filled with water and turning on the heat so it warms up very slowly. The frog has no idea what's happening and eventually falls asleep and is cooked to death. This is what I feel our government is doing to our rights and our constitution. Before we know it, we wont remember what it was like to have any of the freedom we enjoy today. Now, I want to say that I respect everyone's opinion and there are those which I favor more than others, but I'm not here to get into a political debate. I only wish to direct your attention to an event in history. Read the article if you feel so inclined and maybe a few more beyond that. Draw your own conclusions based on what you read. I'm not here to persuade anyone to think in one particular way or another.
  • I understand. I have studied ww2 relentlessly for years. These folks can look up radio detection trucks and realize the basis of phone tech has been around for awhile and extorted by one group or another
  • I don't live down there but if they want to look at my phone then go for it. Ya'll taint gonna find nuttin.
  • This all begins with the people that say shit like, "If you are not doing anything wrong, what do you have to worry about?" Must be part of that new world order we heard a president talk about once upon a time.
  • Stuff like this been going on since Carter Bush and Obama just made it more modern
  • Nothing like visiting a cell phone OS web site for fantastic insight on politics and privacy.
  • Lol. It has some relevance to the topic, you know.
  • I wonder how the government would respond to me if I flew around a plane and collected info on them......
  • You'll be picked up and without questioning and the right of free trial, you'll be labelled a terrorist and sent to Guantanamo.
  • That's wild for spying on people
  • Wow cool guys
  • So if I am on my family's land in the middle of several acres they won't do this? That is not a public road. Plus the agreement I make with a carrier is between me and the carrier, the government is not in the agreement. I don't see how the government has the right to fake a tower, unless of course citizens can do the same with private airplanes and track government officials.
  •   Hell, is anyone surprised anymore? And Drones will make this type of thing even easier to do.
  • I have nothing to hide better to do their job than something worse happens
  • “Those who surrender freedom for security will not have, nor do they deserve, either one.”   Benjamin Franklin
  • You don't get it.   http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N5VAgSdGnSQ&list=UUzIjg5vIfBGcdyLWu6lhXxw
  • I'm sure it's only iDiots' information that are easily being mined this way. That's why the US will continue to promote apple devices. That way, it's easier for the US to control the production and what listening hardwares should be installed in, including compromising firmwares and programs. Unfortunately, most Americans have unknowingly exposed themselves this way.
  • Pretty sure this affects every phone. Posted via Windows Phone Central App
  • Sounds good to me.
  • Best counterintelligence was used by the Order of Jesuits, ranging from business and from the World Wars.
    10 years ago we had a military unit of Russian production. Great waves synchronized with mobile antennas or aircraft 0.8Ghz to 8GHz.
  • http://www.wze.com.pl/index.php/en/our-offer/production/msr-w
  • God bless Wawmerika ..
  • Yep the boogie man is out there always to get the mighty US.
  • Is this really a surprise?? As tech advances so must law enforcement methods.
  • Freedom in western countries specially US and UK is nothing but just a label being used. They are police states where every movement, every speech and every action is being spied by the agencies. Privacy is not there anymore. They cannot solve the issue of terrorism by spying because they are not acknowldging the real problem.
  • Person of interest
  • I mean, if you know someone is taking a gun into a school, do you still want your freedom to come first?
  • Yes, because I have the right to murder him Posted via Windows Phone Central App
  • If there weren't laws preventing me from defending myself with my own gun, then it wouldn't be much of a problem now, would it?  You can't go punishing people for their "potential" to do harm.  They should actually have to do something first to harm someone.  Give me my freedom back!
  • Please, please, please don't start putting privacy-based or politically charged articles on this site.  Stick to windows and technology.
  • America fuck yeah!
  • ''They hate us for our freedom!'' No sh!t :DDDD
  • “Those who surrender freedom for security will not have, nor do they deserve, either one.” ― Benjamin Franklin
  • I'm sorry, but how is this "microsoft news" or anything related with windows central?
  • I'd love to see anyone else's proposed methods of weeding out potential threats to this country.
     
  • "potential"?  Wow, that's like EVERYONE!
  • Yes I too am wondering what this has to do with Windows phone. I go read the verge for overblown stories like this. Please keep this site Windows only! In fact Windows is the most secure anti-government operating system available to consumers who don't go out of their way to be paranoid about government spying.
  • Usa is hurting the Credibility against big companies like Google, Apple, Microsoft and so on. No wounder more and more governments Will use Linux instead of Windows
  • Why is this categorized as "microsoft news"? This has nothing to do with microsoft.
  • Where is the promised freedom?
  • It's funny how people equate to lose of civil liberties to presidents. It's transparency that the internet affords us which gives us information to know these tactics are being taken. Reality is law enforcement and criminals (and the general public to an extent) have been playing cat and mouse a long long time.
  • You have to give it to them, (haha) that is really smart. Edit:
    In fact, that's so impressive I am not even mad. That's ingenious, albeit a not very efficient method.
  • Spying on the America public continues to grow on the notion that the greater threat comes from within, yet the very people who make those claims continue to ignore the problem with our open borders, and now Obama is threatening to executive action amnesty for millions on home soil.  #facepalm
  • I don't want to give up my right to secretly go to the supermarket without anyone knowing I'm there, just so some rapist, child abductor etc can be caught quicker. /Sarcasm. Surely, if some evil doer can be caught quicker, doesn't that mean you should be ok with other people knowing you've gone to the shops? If that kind of privicy is something you need, I hope you don't use credit/debit or loyalty cards. In fact your mobile company knows where you are too, they can tell what mast you are using and those near by. So to be best off you leave your phone at home, in which case why are you complaining?
  • Fuck the NSA
  • If they get a search warrant for the cell phone in question and the records for everyone else are wiped before any set of human eyes sees the data, then it's not a breach of the 4th amendment. There are much bigger things to worry about than this.
  • Come on FCC.  Do something!
  • How do they use the data? "you and yen million other people were in this part of NYC when the crime happened"?