The U.S. Marshals Service is using special planes to collect cellphone data from the sky in order to track down fugitives on the run. That's not the plot of the next Mission: Impossible movie - it's happening in real life. But, they don't just gather data from the fugitive's cellphone. In fact, every cellphone in the area is intercepted.
Marshals outfit Cessna airplanes with a special device that can track down a user's cellphone. If they suspect the criminal is in a general area, they can fly the plane overhead to try and track the person down. The agency is currently flying these planes out of at least five different airports around the country.
... [T]he planes are equipped with two-foot-square devices — sometimes called “dirtboxes” — that mimic cell towers and trick cellphones into reporting their unique registration information and general location.
While the technology has undoubtedly helped law enforcement officers track down criminals, it's also responsible for the invasion of many people's privacy by the government.
There's a lot that's unknown about these devices and their uses. The agency hasn't commented on its use or how data is handled once it's collected.
“Discussion of sensitive law enforcement equipment and techniques would allow criminal defendants, criminal enterprises or foreign powers to determine our capabilities and limitations in this area,” said one department official who provided a statement on the condition of anonymity. “In deploying any such equipment or tactics our federal law enforcement agencies comply with federal law, including by seeking court approval.”
The technology used by the U.S. Marshals sounds similar to the StingRays I've told you about in the past. Law enforcement agencies and police departments across the country have used StingRays to secretly capture a cellphone's unique ID number and traffic information. They place the devices in cars to move them around, so they can triangulate the cellphone's position.
Some police departments in the past have been accused of using StingRays without a warrant. According to the confidential source, the U.S. Marshals are seeking court approval before intercepting cellphone data. But, that doesn't change the fact that they're getting a hold of data from innocent people, too, while performing their searches. Click here to take a look at the phone that can tell when you're being bugged.