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Justice Department using airplanes to track U.S. cell phones, report claims

If the Snowden leaks highlighting government spying have had you shaking with rage ever since the first revelations hit the headlines 18 months ago, then what we’re about to tell you will likely push your blood pressure even higher.

The U.S. Justice Department is reportedly using fake cell phone towers mounted on light aircraft to help pinpoint criminals on the ground by identifying and tracking their handsets, though the way the system works means data from handsets belonging to law-abiding folk is also caught up in the operation.

‘Most’ of the U.S. population within range

People familiar with the operation told the Wall Street Journal that the spying program, which is operated by the department’s U.S. Marshals Service, has been running since 2007 and involves Cessna planes flying out of at least five city airports, with “most” of the American population within tracking range.

According to the Journal’s source, each plane is equipped with a small device – essentially a fake cell phone tower – that forces handsets on the ground to automatically connect with it by appearing to be the strongest cell phone tower signal in the vicinity. The computer equipment aboard the plane is then able to collect unique registration data from the phones.

Related: Snowden warns users to avoid Dropbox, Facebook, and Google

The flights, described as taking place “on a regular basis,” can pick up identifying information and location details from “tens of thousands of cell phones” in a single outing.

The collected data is sifted through to identify suspects in criminal investigations, at which point they can be pinpointed (or at least, their phone can) to within just a few meters. Once the data has been examined, information linked to non-suspects is apparently “let go.”

Safeguards?

However, it’s not currently clear what procedures – if any – are in place to ensure that data linked to non-suspects isn’t kept for later examination by the authorities.

Privacy campaigners will be further concerned by the revelation that updated versions of the technology enable it to block signals and pull data such as text and images from a targeted device, though it’s not currently known if this has been utilized as part of the current flight-based operation.

A spokesperson for Verizon said the company had not been told about the Marshal Service’s program, while representatives for AT&T and Sprint declined to comment.

The Journal’s unnamed source insisted that the agencies run by the U.S. Justice Department work within federal law and always seek court approval prior to launching any operation.