The CIA developed a technology which enables the U.S. Justice Department to track the mobile signals of American citizens using planes.

The secret airborne devices mimic cellphone towers in order to pick up the signals of cellphone users below. Although the CIA and the U.S. Marshals Service of Department of Justice developed the technology to hunt for criminals, it also gathers data on tens of thousands of innocent citizens.

CIA Capture Mobile Signals Using Spy Planes

Indiscriminate data-collection

The Wall Street Journal claims that the technology was developed in “a high-tech hunt for criminal suspects,” but the gadgets, known to officials as “dirtboxes,” collect data indiscriminately. The program uses special planes which fly from 5 different cities across the U.S., meaning that their range covers the majority of the population of the country.

The technology contained in the planes dupes cellphones into giving up their registration information, identifying their users. It can also momentarily prevent cellphones from being able to make calls.

A CIA spokesman has since claimed that some of the technologies have been shared with other government agencies in a lawful and responsible manner. “How those agencies use that technology is determined by the legal authorities that govern the operations of those individual organizations-not CIA,” he stated.

Legal proceedings underway

For his part the Justice Department spokesman claimed that all techniques employed by the Marshals Service are “carried out consistent with federal law, and are subject to court approval.”

The spokesman went on to claim that the agency does not carry out “domestic surveillance, intelligence gathering, or any type of bulk data collection,” nor does it gather data which is passed on to U.S. spy agencies such as the CIA.

International non-profit digital rights organization the Electronic Frontier Foundation has undertaken legal proceedings in order to find out more details about the program and why it was implemented.

“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, a legal fellow on the Electronic Frontier Foundation civil liberties team.