The Justice Department is using Cessna aircraft outfitted with fake communications towers in its attempts to catch criminals, but each flight gleans information from tens of thousands of Americans.
“Dirtboxes” have been used by the U.S. Marshals Service since 2007 to conduct surveillance across a flight range that blankets most of the country, The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday. Digital Recovery Technology Inc., a subsidiary of Boeing, makes the device.
Sources told the paper that flights originating out of at least five metropolitan-area airports are conducted on a regular basis. A Justice Department official contacted by the paper for its story would neither confirm nor deny the existence of such a 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,” Christopher Soghoian, chief technologist at the American Civil Liberties Union, told the paper.
A Justice Department official who spoke with The Journal said that discussing such technology would tip off criminals and foreign powers what the U.S. is capable of, but that all existing programs comply with federal law.
“What is done on U.S. soil is completely legal,” a source told The Journal. “Whether it should be done is a separate question.”
A Boeing spokeswoman declined to comment for the paper’s story.
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