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United States Cellphones Communications Handhelds Privacy

Department of Justice Harvests Cell Phone Data Using Planes 202

Tyketto writes The US Department of Justice has been using fake communications towers installed in airplanes to acquire cellular phone data for tracking down criminals, reports The Wall Street Journal. Using fix-wing Cessnas outfitted with DRT boxes produced by Boeing, the devices mimic cellular towers, fooling cellphones into reporting "unique registration information" to track down "individuals under investigation." The program, used by the U.S. Marshals Service, has been in use since 2007 and deployed around at least five major metropolitan areas, with a flying range that can cover most of the US population. As cellphones are designed to connect to the strongest cell tower signal available, the devices identify themselves as the strongest signal, allowing for the gathering of information on thousands of phones during a single flight. Not even having encryption on one's phone, like found in Apple's iPhone 6, prevents this interception. While the Justice Department would not confirm or deny the existence of such a program, Verizon denies any involvement in this program, and DRT (a subsidiary of Boeing), AT&T, and Sprint have all declined to comment.
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Department of Justice Harvests Cell Phone Data Using Planes

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday November 14, 2014 @09:16AM (#48384845)

    Having a database of the cell towers a phone *should* see in a given region (it should be possible to crowdsource that) should make it possible to throw an alarm if a cell tower with suspicious characteristics "appears" at some spot.

    For that, we'd need reasonably documented baseband processors.

    Of course, political involvment is the more adequate approach to a political problem. But why neglect the technical tools?

    • by arth1 ( 260657 ) on Friday November 14, 2014 @09:37AM (#48384931) Homepage Journal

      Of course, political involvment is the more adequate approach to a political problem.

      According to the US constitution, arms is the correct approach to governmental oppression.

      But far be it for me to advocate the constitution, because that's illegal...

      • But far be it for me to advocate the constitution, because that's illegal...

        You sound like you're having subversive thoughts, citizen.

        A car has been dispatched to bring you to the nearest thought re-alignment camp, where you will realize the government is here to serve you, and these are necessary steps.

        Your kitchen should be dispensing a nice, tasty glass of Kool Aid for you.

        Don't you Remember,
        The Fifth of November,
        'Twas Gunpowder Treason Day,
        I let off my gun,
        And made'em all run.
        And Stole all their Bonfire

      • by rwa2 ( 4391 ) *

        Of course, political involvment is the more adequate approach to a political problem. But why neglect the technical tools?

        According to the US constitution, arms is the correct approach to governmental oppression.

        But far be it for me to advocate the constitution, because that's illegal...

        Why not both? The database of cell phone towers that shows you which tower you're connected to already exists:
        http://opensignal.com/android/ [opensignal.com]

        It's more useful for trying to figure out where to go to get the best signal in your environment, but if you can use it to figure out when you're being oppressed, then all the more power to you.

    • Having a database of the cell towers a phone *should* see in a given region (it should be possible to crowdsource that) should make it possible to throw an alarm if a cell tower with suspicious characteristics "appears" at some spot.

      There's no need for a free/open source baseband or really any technical changes at all to fix this at a technical level. Just disable 2G/GSM on your phone (not sure what the equivalent would be for Verizon). 3G/UMTS onwards involves the phone/SIM authenticating the tower cryptog

      • by Andy Dodd ( 701 )

        "But at least the phone companies can know about it and mount a legal fight, if they so choose'

        Really hard with current legislation.

        Remember Lavabit? It's already been proven that the government has been using legal means to acquire the private keys of service providers for the purposes of MITM attacks just like this one.

        • Lavabit is a bad example - the FBI only requested the private SSL key directly after the Lavabit guy refused to co-operate with a more tightly scoped warrant and claimed he had no way to intercept the data of just the user they were interested in (Snowden) ..... a claim that was manifestly false and everyone knew it. If he had handed over just the data of the one user requested, the SSL key would probably still be private. But after proving that he was utterly unco-operative and quite possibly untrustworthy

    • by PPH ( 736903 )

      Wouldn't that just be a GSM modem? Instead of giving a baseband processor direct access to a phone's memory and storage, these are controlled over a serial link using an enhanced AT command set [wikipedia.org]. That gives a decent level of isolation between the RF processor and phone logic so as to prevent a network operator from poking around in the phone's OS. It is also reasonably well documented and, although it still might be possible for a malicious operator to monkey around in the modem's RF system, the phone OS as

      • There are certain practical reasons for the memory access. It's basically DMA. Faster data transfer for less power. In mobile devices, power is everything. The baseband processor runs a seperate processor and OS for legal reasons - no need to get approval for ever new minor revision of a phone that way, and less chance of some clever hacker managing to root the thing and modify it to trample everyone else's timeslots and make sure they can still place calls when the network is overloaded.

  • by QilessQi ( 2044624 ) on Friday November 14, 2014 @09:16AM (#48384847)

    i.e., "everyone".

    • "everyone" will be translated into something grotesquely governmental like subjects of interest, which will include you if your cousin's niece's hairdresser's brother-in-law took a Middle Eastern Studies freshman course.

      Boeing cooperating with the government is like my son cooperating with me and taking out the garbage. I'm his biggest source of income.

      • If they can, they will.
        It's like melamine in you baby food.
        Don't give me no shuck about "legal", "constitutional" or "moral".
        Just assume if it's technically possible, somebody is doing it, and act accordingly.

        I know you're hiding somewhere with your damsons and prunes. Well I'm ready for you. I've wired meself up to 200 tons of gelignite, and if any one of you so much as makes a move we'll all go up together! Right, right. I warned you. That's it...

        -- NOTE -- the quote was satire, relevant to the arms race you've created, NSA

  • by Tyr07 ( 2300912 ) on Friday November 14, 2014 @09:19AM (#48384859) Homepage

    I'm not exactly against them catching criminals, but how often has someone receive shitty cell service and 'drops' because of these fake towers?

    • by arth1 ( 260657 ) on Friday November 14, 2014 @09:31AM (#48384909) Homepage Journal

      I'm not exactly against them catching criminals, but how often has someone receive shitty cell service and 'drops' because of these fake towers?

      If they have caused just one 911 call to fail or be delayed, someone needs to be pilloried.
      The end does not justify the means.

    • Never?

      Your phone communicates with multiple towers at any given time if they are in range.

      Cell phones don't ALWAYS use the strongest signal, in fact, I don't know of any cell phone in the US which is set to use signal strength as the highest value in its tower selection.

      Provider comes first. Your phone will select a weaker but usable tower from a list the provider provides it over a flawless signal from a tower that would cost it 'roaming' charges.

      So it really doesn't matter what these boxes put out from a

      • by arth1 ( 260657 )

        Cell phones don't ALWAYS use the strongest signal, in fact, I don't know of any cell phone in the US which is set to use signal strength as the highest value in its tower selection.

        Any GSM phone that is set to full roaming, where it deliberately picks the provider based on signal strength, not provider.

        And 911 calls, especially for devices that do not have a provider. When I go hiking, I bring a cell phone without a SIM card, expecting it to work for 911 calls, without anyone being able to contact me. And I expect anything it contacts that identifies as a tower to be able to relay my calls for help.

        • by Shakrai ( 717556 )

          When I go hiking, I bring a cell phone without a SIM card, expecting it to work for 911 calls, without anyone being able to contact me.

          That's a dangerous assumption; it may work to call 911, but even if you're able to call 911 they won't be able to call you back if the call should get dropped. You can call back of course, but you have no guarantee that you'll end up talking to the same PSAP [wikipedia.org], never mind the same 911 dispatcher. Additionally, without a SIM card the phone won't even try to connect to a network until you attempt to place the 911 call, which will delay your 911 call for seconds or even minutes. CDMA phones work a little di

        • What YOU expect and reality are two different things. There is no 'full roaming', there is only 'unconfigured', and that ends the instant your phone connects to a network and is considered active. The preference list will be sent to your device before you make the first normal voice call. If you never activate a phone, you may not have a preference list, but thats extremely unlikely in america as pretty much every phone is sold in a way that its biased towards one of the major providers, even with no con

      • by PPH ( 736903 )

        Your phone communicates with multiple towers at any given time if they are in range

        Caveat: These boxes could authenticate themselves as your provider (Sprint, AT&T, Verizon, etc), but there is no need to do so to get the IMEA number of your device so there is no reason for them to fake being a real provider.

        But then these devices don't even need to appear as having the strongest signal to get your IMEI number either. So, if TFS is correct and they are doing this, they are doing a lot more than recording serial numbers. They are tricking your phone into negotiating connections through them. So they can intercept the content of these connections. And all without a warrant.

    • I'm not exactly against them catching criminals, but how often has someone receive shitty cell service and 'drops' because of these fake towers?

      You don't understand. You're a criminal. We all are. It's impossible to get through a day in this country without breaking federal law. You've probably done it multiple times this morning and aren't even aware of it. The perp they're after is you.

      • People always say this, but they neglect to mention WHICH FEDERAL LAWS are being broken daily by everybody.
        • Federal Laws (Score:4, Interesting)

          by Terry Pearson ( 935552 ) on Friday November 14, 2014 @11:58AM (#48385951) Journal

          People always say this, but they neglect to mention WHICH FEDERAL LAWS are being broken daily by everybody.

          I suppose people either just assume it is true, or they know details but do not want to get too sidetracked... This video may help explain which laws we break daily: https://www.youtube.com/watch?... [youtube.com]

          On a more on topic note, StingRay devices cover a broad range of uses. Some simply harvest unique cellular IDs, while others do much more to intercept communication and emulate legitimate towers. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/... [wikipedia.org]

          • Have you ever read Slashdot at work?

            That's a federal crime. You're not authorised by the owner of the system to use it for reading slashdot, so your usage of it is unauthorised. It's supposed to be a law against hacking, it's just badly worded.

        • by rwa2 ( 4391 ) *

          People always say this, but they neglect to mention WHICH FEDERAL LAWS are being broken daily by everybody.

          You know, the secret ones. They can't tell you what they are, though, that'll ruin the surprise. The essence of surprise is critical. CRITICAL!

          • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

            by bugsy37 ( 3863115 )

            In 1982 the Justice Department tried to tally the number of Federal Criminal laws. After a full two years of investigation among 50 titles and 23K pages of law, they approximated 3,000. However, they could not come up with an exact count because of the breadth and depth of the source material. 32 years later the situation is almost certainly worse.

            In 2013 Federal Agencies issued 3,659 final rules. A violation of any of which could tie you up in court for years trying to resolve.

            A real-world example: a dru

  • by arth1 ( 260657 ) on Friday November 14, 2014 @09:25AM (#48384879) Homepage Journal

    Not even having encryption on one's phone, like found in Apple's iPhone 6, prevents this interception.

    WTF does this statement have to do in TFS? There cannot possibly be any slashdotters ignorant enough about technology to think that encryption of a device would have any impact on the radio signals?

    I really miss /. - where did it go?

  • 4th Amendment ... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by gstoddart ( 321705 ) on Friday November 14, 2014 @09:31AM (#48384911) Homepage

    Unreasonable search and seizure.

    I'm sorry, but this is blanket surveillance, without warrant, probable cause, or oversight.

    At a certain point, the court needs to weigh in on this, because DoJ and the rest of law enforcement are completely ignoring the Constitution, the law, and pretty much everything else.

    Why is this not landing these clowns in jail?

    When your government becomes hostile to your rights, it's time to become hostile to your government.

    • by ganjadude ( 952775 ) on Friday November 14, 2014 @09:42AM (#48384967) Homepage
      since when has this admin (or the last for that matter) given a flying fuck about the 4th amendment (or constitution in general?)
      • by gstoddart ( 321705 ) on Friday November 14, 2014 @09:54AM (#48385021) Homepage

        Sadly, when 9/11 happened, they pretty much decided that the niceties of the Constitution and the law were far too dangerous to allow, and went straight to the fascism.

        Essentially, the terrorists won, because they've more or less caused governments around the world to start ignoring our rights.

        Now it's security at any costs, and since we're already tracking you, we'll pass that onto law enforcement and teach them how to hide the source of intelligence. Oh, and we'll share it among a bunch of other countries, and secretly enlist the corporations to hand over their data.

        So, now we'll monitor everything you do, using laws we said we'd only use for terrorism, and then have the police perjure themselves to make it look like they obtained the information legally.

        Papers please, comrade.

        I wonder how long before they no longer feel the need to give us the illusion of freedom?

        • I wonder how long before they no longer feel the need to give us the illusion of freedom?

          They'll keep it up as long as they can. Maintaining control through propaganda is preferable to maintaining it by force. It's cheaper and more stable. Most people still buy what they hear on the news. Even though people are starting to chafe under the surveillance, most still think it's about terrorism (as opposed to maintaining the status quo). If the powers that be do have to resort to jackboots in the streets, the media will make sure to characterize it in the right way. Again, most people will buy

        • They had requested the same level of rights pre 9-11. Using 9-11 as the moment they decided they wanted the powers is a lie. They wanted them and were told no many times. (-11 was convenient in scaring people enough to give up their privacy.

    • by LWATCDR ( 28044 )

      Possibly not because observation does not require warrant or a court order.
      An example, someone is stealing stuff out of cars at a mall. An unmarked car cruises the mall looking for people breaking into cars.
      This is not a search and is not taking anything. It is just observation which is completely legal.

    • I'm curious how and if this applies to that patent fron earlier this year or last year about location-based advertising. Its bulk grabbing of cell phone data to feed you a coupon for something on or near the shelf you're standing by. True, the underlying motivation is different, but the mechanism is largely the same. I happen to be looking at power tools, look at my phone and am fed Sears adds. I'm sure with the appropriate warrant some agencies could listen in, if they arent already.
  • by NotDrWho ( 3543773 ) on Friday November 14, 2014 @09:38AM (#48384935)

    I used to have a friend who was convinced that the CIA was flying around in black helicopters spying on everyone. Guess I owe him an apology. He just wasn't thinking big enough.

  • by xxxJonBoyxxx ( 565205 ) on Friday November 14, 2014 @10:05AM (#48385083)

    I find it interesting that we're getting great investigative journalism out of places like The Wall Street Journal - reread the name if you don't see the irony - rather than the New York Times, the Washington Post, etc. What ELSE do you guys know about that you haven't revealed yet?

  • As someone who has been through the federal justice system, I advise any American to assume that every piece of communication is tracked and saved under the guise of security. It was amazing to me how much information and how many resources the government has the ability to utilize if it wants to target one person, and even if I do make full restitution to my victims, I do not know if I will ever feel free again - not because of my situation, which you can read at The Market is not Random [tminr.com] - but because of

  • The use of disposable phones, multiple SIM cards, etc, is a near-universal presence in any kind of mass entertainment featuring espionage or even semi-organized criminal enterprises.

    Even at this point, how low-level and stupid do most criminals have to be to use/carry a cell phone any longer than absolutely necessary? And if they do use one, wouldn't it be a throwaway they would get rid of after a short period?

    Ultimately sting-ray and it's ilk seem like they would just no longer be useful.

    • by Shakrai ( 717556 )

      And if they do use one, wouldn't it be a throwaway they would get rid of after a short period?

      That doesn't provide as much protection as you'd think it would. Criminals generally operate in a defined geographical area and it's rather trivial to look at the base stations serving that area to look for new devices popping onto the network. You then examine the numbers that those devices are calling; the game is over as soon as one of them places a call to a number that's already on your watch list. The Times Square would be bomber was caught this way; he used a burner phone that should have been unt

  • I had just landed at CLT airport from abroad. Turned on my Verizon phone and the little "roaming" triangle was flickering over the signal bars. Then I received some random text about subscribing to juice bar alerts (I get very few spam texts). So it may not be only the government up to this kind of shenanigans.

  • Flying Stingrays? Sounds like a movie plot. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2724064/ [imdb.com]

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