US government faces data-scooping accusations

The United States’ Justice Department has been accused of collecting swathes of data from its citizens using devices attached to aircraft.

Revealed in the Wall Street Journal, the program, which started in 2007, operates a number of fixed-wing planes equipped with equipment known as “dirtboxes” on board. The aircraft used in the program fly from “at least” five metropolitan airports in the US, and can cover most of the country’s population in their snooping activities.

The dirtbox, which measures around two square feet, tricks mobile phones into connecting to it by broadcasting the strongest signal available. This broadcast convinces the mobiles that it is a regular network tower. As the phones connect they send their registration information and other data, which the dirtbox then records.

Even having encrypted data, such as offered by Apple on its iPhone 6, doesn't prevent the data from being stolen.

The technology is aimed at locating the mobiles of individuals and suspects under investigation by the US government. The device, according to official statements, “lets go” of any non-suspect data.

“It’s a dragnet surveillance program,” Christopher Soghoian, chief technologist at the American Civil Liberties Union, told the WSJ. “It’s inexcusable and it’s likely that, due to the extent judges are authorising it, they [the judges] have no idea of the scale of it.

“Maybe it’s worth violating privacy of hundreds of people to catch a suspect,” he added. “But is it worth thousands or tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of peoples’ privacy?”

American telecommunications firms have been silent on the matter so far, with a Verizon spokesperson stating that the equipment used in the program is not endorsed by their company. AT&T and Sprint have reportedly refused to comment on the matter.