Secret US program uses planes to gather Americans’ cellphone data

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Secret US program uses planes to gather Americans' cellphone data

The Wall Street Journal is reporting that devices on aircraft mimic cellphone towers to collect cellphone data in surveillance program.

AljazeeraAmerica reports: Cellphone data from thousands of innocent Americans is being collected by devices deployed on small airplanes as part of the Justice Department’s attempts to expose and monitor criminal suspects, the Wall Street Journal reported Thursday, citing unnamed people familiar with the operation.

The spying program operates Cessna aircraft from at least five airports with a range that covers most of the U.S. population, according to the newspaper.

The aircraft carry devices that mimic the signals of commercial cellphone towers to gain access to people’s unique registration information and gather personal data from thousands of cellphones in a single flight, the Journal said. It said the devices collect data on criminal suspects, but also force ordinary citizens’ phones to release personal information.

The report compared the project to the National Security Agency’s (NSA) dragnet surveillance program, which came under heavy criticism last year when former NSA analyst Edward Snowden leaked classified information about the government’s widespread collection of cellphone metadata and Internet communications.

The Justice Department would neither confirm nor deny the existence of the airplane program, the newspaper said.

The report quoted Christopher Soghoian, chief technologist at the American Civil Liberties Union, as calling the project “a dragnet surveillance program. It’s inexcusable and it’s likely — to the extent judges are authorizing it — [that] they have no idea of the scale of it.”

By directly gathering the data, the program cuts out commercial cellphone carriers whose records need to be obtained through a court order, the report said. People familiar with the program said they get court orders to search phones, but it was unclear what those orders contained because the records are sealed, according to the Wall Street Journal.

The devices can interfere with calls on certain phones, people who are familiar with the program told the Journal, but the government has tried to minimize that risk, including adapting the software so calls to emergency services aren’t interrupted.

Niamh Harris
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