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Why, Hello There! CIA Helped DOJ Create Technology That Scans Data From Our Cellphones

Last year, the Wall Street Journal reported the existence of a cellphone data collection program. Now, they report that the Central Intelligence Agency played a key role developing the technology used by the Department of Justice that “scans data from thousands of cellphones at a time.” Used by the U.S. Marshals Service, these so-called “dirtboxes” are attached to planes and trick cellphones into reporting their registration information by mimicking cell towers. Of course, this operation isn’t without controversy, especially since the CIA is barred from participating in domestic surveillance; the FBI handles that end (via WSJ):


The program operates specially equipped planes that fly from five U.S. cities, with a flying range covering most of the U.S. population. Planes are equipped with devices—some past versions were dubbed “dirtboxes” by law-enforcement officials—that trick cellphones into reporting their unique registration information.

The surveillance system briefly identifies large numbers of cellphones belonging to citizens unrelated to the search. The practice can also briefly interfere with the ability to make calls, these people said.

Some law-enforcement officials are concerned the aerial surveillance of cellphone signals inappropriately mixes traditional police work with the tactics and technology of overseas spy work that is constrained by fewer rules. Civil-liberties groups say the technique amounts to a digital dragnet of innocent Americans’ phones.

The CIA has a long-standing prohibition that bars it from conducting most types of domestic operations, and officials at both the CIA and the Justice Department said they didn’t violate those rules.

The cooperation began a decade ago, when the CIA arranged for the Marshals Service to receive more than $1 million in gear to conduct such surveillance, said people familiar with the program. More than $100 million went into research and development of the devices.

As expected, the DOJ does not confirm nor deny the existence of this program, in which one version went into the testing phase as early as 2004. The Journal also asked if the CIA had given similar technology to other law enforcement agencies; they declined to comment. But, of course, civil libertarians have their reservations:


A CIA spokesman declined to comment on whether the CIA or any other agency uses the devices. Some technologies developed by the agency “have been lawfully and responsibly shared with other U.S. government agencies,” the spokesman said. “How those agencies use that technology is determined by the legal authorities that govern the operations of those individual organizations—not CIA.” He also said the relationship between the Marshals Service and CIA tech experts couldn’t be characterized as a marriage.

The Justice Department, which oversees the Marshals Service, would neither confirm nor deny the existence of such technology, saying that doing so would tip off criminals.

To civil libertarians, the close involvement of America’s premier international spy agency with a domestic law-enforcement arm shows how military and espionage techniques are now being used on U.S. citizens.

“There’s a lot of privacy concerns in something this widespread, and those concerns only increase if we have an intelligence agency coordinating with them,” said Andrew Crocker of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which has filed a lawsuit seeking more details about the program and its origins.

I’m all for giving law enforcement the tools necessary to track down criminals. At the same time, I’m really not comfortable with government being able to scan my phone, even if it’s just a collateral byproduct of an investigation. Moreover, the libertarian argument regarding this “marriage” between our foreign intelligence entities and our domestic law enforcement isn’t something to disregard lightly.


Hopefully, the congressional inquiries into the program will shed some light on the accountability process, especially when it comes to protecting Americans’ civil liberties and Fourth Amendment rights.

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